Tuesday, October 9, 2007

To The Ice - At Last!

Departure time was finally near. The minutes ticked by dreadfully slowly! At last, the shuttle came to get us at 0830 . Only Julia and I were scheduled for the first flight, so the rest of the ARISE team came out to wish us farewell. They would be right behind us, leaving at 1000 hours with a scheduled flight at 1300 hours.

We arrived at the CDC and were told to quickly change into our ECW and move on through security. Julia and I got our 2 checked bags, plus our boomerang bag (also a checked bag) plus our carryon bag (which in the end they told us we couldn’t carry on because there would be no storage room) and proceeded through the corridors to the Antarctica Passenger Terminal.

We slogged with all of our gear through security, and then went into a holding room where we had a briefing about the flight and about our arrival in Antarctica.
Then we proceeded again through to the departure gate, and sat for about an hour while they readied the plane. I saw them taking fuel out of the tanks in the wings to check it. And then a palette arrived with all of our bags loaded on it. This was loaded into the back side of the Herc.

A Herc, short for Hercules LC-130, is a cargo plane with a turbo-prop engine, meaning that it has both propellers and jet engines. It is intended primarily for cargo, and the interior of the plane has straps and platforms everywhere to maximize room for cargo. This particular plane that we are flying in is being flown by the New Zealand Air Force. I watch them closely as they ready the plane for loading.

During this time I also had the chance to meet some of the other team members. I spoke with Dr. Marv Speece and Dr. Ross Powell, both of the scientists with the Mackay Sea Valley Seismic Survey, of which Julia and I will be members.
We spoke of equipment needs, necessary training required before departing into the field, ice conditions, and so forth. It was starting to become real!

Eventually we were told that it was time to board. A Loadmaster briefed us about boarding and the use of lifejackets, etc. He then asked if there were any questions.

A brave soul inquired, “what is the weather like in McMurdo?”

“Minus 33,” he replied. “And clear.”

“Celcius or Farenheit?”

“Farenheit,” he answered.


We then were led onboard. I was the first one seated in the front “row” and was right next to a window. It was great seat - I had leg room that nobody else had (even though many need it much more than I do!!) I could peek out the window anytime, and was able to snap lots of pictures. The “seats” were actually strips of nylon webbing strung across a metal frame. It doesn’t sound like the peak of luxury – but it really wasn’t too bad.

After a half hour of flying, we saw our last glimpse of land and headed out over the sea. For the next four or so hours, we flew over the sea and clouds. I was thrilled to be sitting on the right side of the plane (as you face the cockpit) – because I knew that heading south, I have the chance to see North Victorial Land, if it was not covered in clouds. What a thrill that would be!!!! Like an old friend… A scene now familiar to so many people because of my pre-ice talks!

We were given box snacks as we got on the plane. And earplugs to wear, since it is extremely noisy inside the herc.

5 hours into the flight there was a clearing in the clouds. Through the window I could sea ice cracking up, and large pressure ridges buckling under the forces of the ice. What an amazing sight!

A bit further on, the immense frozen landscape of Victoria Land came into view below me. An endless landscape of ice-covered mountains, glaciers, a frozen expanse extending as far as the eye could see. Like that same moment 22 years ago, when I first had this glimpse, I felt such awe at the magnitude of this land. Humbled by its remoteness and desolation, enchanted by its beauty, and simultaneously terrified and bursting with excitement to be, once again, living here for two months. I feel lucky beyond measure.

The ice and mountains and sea ice continued for miles and miles as we flew the final two hours of our flight to McMurdo Station. As we descended, the changing texture of the ice became apparent.

In place, I can see large icebergs, which had floated away in a previous year, now embedded in frozen in the sea ice which skirts the continent. It is early October and the sea ice, more than 5 million square miles of it, is at its peak. It doubles the area of Antarctica when it is at its maximum!

Eventually we descended and came into view of the ice runway at McMurdo.
The Herc made a low approach, and eventually touched down on the frozen sea ice. That is pretty spectacular – to think that a large aircraft is landing on ice just a few meters thick. I later learn that as soon as an aircraft touches down on the sea ice, a spotting scope is focused on the plane to look for any evidence of the ice dipping or cracking under the weight of the plane. If any is noted, the plane is immediately moved.

It took a long time to stop since we are landing on ice. Hercs often land on skis which they need to land on the mushier ice and snow of the Ross Ice Shelf. But here, a wheeled landing works just fine, since we are on the hard sea ice.

I stepped outside and onto the ice. I felt like an astronaut stepping foot on the moon, and couldn’t seem to get the smile off my face. I had landed! I was in Antarctica!

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