Mission to Antarctica
Antarctica! In honor of the 10th year since I stepped foot on the ICE I will reprint, over the coming weeks, the posts I sent back to readers at that time. I was a member of the Nebraska Air National Guard and, as a flight surgeon, had the great opportunity to provide medical support to the McMurdo station in 2007. It was a life-changing journey and one that I tried to repeat, to no avail.
My next novel, now in the review stage, “Crisis on the Ice” borrows from my experiences and those of others who have traveled to Antarctica. Of course, as a work of fiction, it borrows from my imagination as well. Stay with me and learn about this fascinating world that few are privileged to visit. ANTARCTICA!
4 February 2007
February second was the day I was scheduled to travel to Antarctica. The flight was scheduled to leave at 10:00 but was delayed because of fog at the landing field. Until they were sure the fog would lift in time for the flight to land they did not want the C17 to leave Christchurch. Weather in Christchurch was beautiful. It was about 70 ° F and a calm breeze. Prior to being loaded onto the C17 we were expected to have with us all our cold weather gear. Before stepping off the aircraft we needed to don boots, wind pants, gloves, and parka. There were only seven passengers (PAX in military terms) but on the plane with us were three containers of liquefied helium gas totaling about 75,000 pounds of helium. The containers are so large that a C130 is only able to carry one at a time. These huge tanks were secured by chains in multiple places putting me in mind of a rogue elephant being held down by ropes and chains. These banged against the sides of the tanks during take-off and I watched closely to be sure they didn’t move side to side. I needn’t have worried, the loadmasters on the C17’s know their job.
The C17 does not land at the same place (called Pegasus) on the ice as the C130 so once the plane lands the helium tanks will be loaded on sleds and towed about 2 miles to the C130 landing area (Williams’ field). These will be flown to the South pole individually and utilized for stabilization of the radio-telescopes there. These telescopes were strategically placed at the South Pole because they can be used 24/7 throughout the long Antarctic winter night. According to one of the scientists they use the information to try to learn more about the origin of the universe. If I get to the pole he has offered to let me look them over. The names of the telescopes are “Bicep,” Quad, South Polar Telescope. From what I now know about my trip to the South Pole, though, I won’t have time to do much looking around.
This is summer time in Antarctica. As a consequence the weather has been very nice with highs in the 30’s 40’s Fahrenheit. However today the weather has changed and the high was only 18° with a fairly strong wind. The wind caused the fog to form. This had delayed our departure but also had the effect of moving ice out of the bay so that there is open water visible from McMurdo base. Several people have reported whale sightings, though I haven’t seen any yet. (This is a Killer Whale photo) I saw seals on the ice yesterday but they were too far for a photo.
McMurdo Station is located on Ross Island so technically I still am not “on” Antarctica. The ice shelf is solid here and the aircraft actually land on the permanent sea ice of the Ross Ice Shelf. When we landed we were transported to McMurdo station by van with regular, albeit large, tires. The ice of course is white but as soon as we neared Ross Island the white landscape changed to the brownish gray of lava. This entire region is volcanic in origin. Mt Erebus which was covered in clouds is not far away and is an active volcano spewing gases and occasional lava bombs.
Scott base is run by New Zealand and consists of “kiwi green” buildings on the shore of Ross Island. Just over a pass we drove by large fuel tanks above McMurdo Station then descended into the small town that is McMurdo Station. I was surprised by how many buildings appeared before me. These weren’t little Quonset hut units but large 3 story dormitories, modern design buildings, and even a chalet style structure. There were dozens (at least one hundred) of vehicles from the boxy “deltas” to tracked pickup, vans, sno-cats, the terra bus.
My dorm is the one in the middle and I have a first floor room. Most people have roommates but I am on my own. What is actually happening now is that most scientific research and polar operations are winding down. While I am just beginning my time here many are preparing to leave having been on the ice all summer. The “winter” people are anxious for the “summer” people to move on so they can get on with the work they will do through the winter time. I have missed many of the scientific lectures and field trips that earlier visitors could take. Nevertheless, I hope to get to the South Pole yet. More to follow.by