Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Across the Antarctic Ocean

The adventure begins! Check-in at the Antarctic terminal was at 6 am for our 8:30 flight. We changed into ECW (extreme cold weather) gear for the flight, had our temperatures taken (no sick people are allowed in Antarctica) checked our checked luggage and boomerang bag, and checked in for our flight. In addition to our checked baggage, they also weighed the passengers and carry on luggage (“please step up onto the scale.”).

ECW gear is required wearing in case of emergency. My 2006 flight back from the Pole clearly showed why this is a good idea – the cabin heating on our LC-130 failed, and the cabin temperature dropped below freezing. Way below freezing. But, we stayed comfortable.

The ‘boomerang’ bag contains clothing for a day or two, in case we ‘boomerang.’ A ‘boomerang’ is when the flight South is unable to land at McMurdo, so returns to Christchurch; checked luggage stays checked, but the boomerang bag is returned.

Then, we had an hour to kill - time for a light breakfast. Then we watched a safety video (everything from appropriate clothing and frostbite and sunburn to construction safety in 15 minutes), went through security screening, and boarded two buses to drive through the rain to the plane.

The C-17 is a large 4-engine jet transport, built to land on unimproved runways. Ours was operated by the U. S. Air Force transport. There were only 53 passengers on this flight, so the center of the plane was filled with cargo. Most people sat in jump-seats on the side; there were a few airline style seats in the front center. Here are a couple of pictures I took of the passenger/cargo area

and cockpit of the C-17:

There was limited sound insulation, so they passed out earplugs. “Inflight Service” consisted of 3 jugs of water and some cups, plus earplugs (there was limited sound insulation). Bag lunches and water bottles were distributed before boarding.

As we neared the Antarctic coast, the clouds thinned, and we got some views of ice-covered ocean. The ice extended at least 300 miles from land (and this wasn’t even the ice shelf). The photo (below) shows Sturge Island in the background. It is part of the Balleny Island Group. The photo was taken through one of the two less-than-pristine windows on each side of the plane.

Later, we saw the Antarctic 'coast', before we had to sit down and fasten our seat belts for landing.

We landed on the Sea Ice Runway, just offshore from McMurdo station. This runway will close soon, when the ice gets too soft, and C-17 operations will shift from Pegasys field, a “white ice” runway, a 45 minute drive to McMurdo. Here we are deplaning:


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