Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The C-17 to McMurdo

The last leg of our long journey to Antarctica got underway yesterday! It was October 9th in NZ and Antarctica, but still the 8th in Alaska. At noon we weighed in our checked luggage and ourselves + carry-on bag and got our boarding pass necklace. After a briefing and a last chance to touch grass and plants, we bundled up in our required ECW (extreme cold weather clothing), went through security, grabbed a snack box, and boarded a bus that took us to our National Guard C-17. It took three buses to get all 100 McMurdo bound passengers on board.

Inside, the C-17 had 9 big cargo pallets in the back of the plane, extending down the middle. The pallet's weights varied between 4400 lbs and more than 7000 lbs for a total of around 35 tons of cargo on this flight. This is nowhere near the maximum load that the plane can carry. In a strictly cargo configuration, 18 LARGE (~8' x 8' footprint, and 9' tall) pallets would fit in the plane. However, we have several pallets of airline seats down the middle as well as two aisles and jump seats lining both walls of the plane. At take off we weighed "only" 250 tons- plane, people, cargo, and fuel. With the large amount of weight the C-17 can carry, it is a very economical and efficient plane.

The C-17 Globemaster is a very versatile plane, it can be set up at a moment's notice to carry up to 9 strechers and when lightly loaded can touch down and take off in a shorter space than the "classic" US Antarctic workhorse, the C-130 Hercules. One big bonus for the US Antarctic program in using the Globemasters with their ~11 hour range is that in normal conditions the fully loaded plane can travel from Christchurch to McMurdo Station, offload personnel and cargo, load any northbound passengers or cargo, and return to New Zealand without needing to refuel at McMurdo. As McMurdo is supplied with fuel only once a year by a tanker, anything that can be done to conserve it is very useful. The special partitioned floors on the C-17, rollers on one side and tractioned "floor" on the other, also make it very swift to load in any configuration. Our Loadmaster said it took around 15 minutes to load up the cargo for our flight. On an older plane the same amount might take 45 minutes to load.

The trip took a little over 5 hours, and about an hour from the end, we were able to see our first glimpses of the continent of Antarctica! The four little round hole windows in the exit doors immediately became very popular, as did the chance to wait in line to go 2 or 3 at a time up into the cockpit and look out the panoramic windows. Through any window the aerial view of the continent was truly breathtaking. Endless reflective white snow, glaciers, and clouds with the occasional row of mountains filled me with awe. I could have stared at it forever quite happily - easily forgetting about worldly things such as hunger or cold.

The interior of the plane was quite comfortable for the flight, there was a typical airplane lavatory, our carry-on was stuffed under the seats and once airborne, we were free to walk around and use electronics. Only this plane was better than commercial airlines I've been on in several respects! There were electrical outlets in various places to charge up your computer, etc. There was MUCH more leg and elbow room. And for the few folks who were so inclined, you could sit or lie on the floor (only it was metal and VERY cold). The interior was cool, other than Big Red we all kept most of our ECW gear on during the flight, and when we were beginning to descend for landing at McMurdo we started to bundle up even more- hats, goggles, sunglasses, mittens, gloves, gaiters all made an appearance.

It was a bit disconcerting landing with no windows to look out of for reference. With no more than a gentle bump we touched down for a great landing on a runway made of ice floating on the ocean where the outside temperature was -26 F. Many thanks to the Washington state National Guard members from Operation Deep Freeze that gave us such a smooth, safe and informative flight!

What factors are important to get the best cost efficiency in carrying cargo and people to Antarctica - or any remote or difficult to access area? Where might you start your research to find out what some costs and numbers actually are?

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