Due to all the delays we have faced in getting to the South Pole, our flight is now high in the priority list and is scheduled for an 11am departure. This means leaving McMurdo at 8:45am. We are all resigned to the usual waiting around and delays, but for some reason things are moving fast today, and we only have to wait ten minutes before being rushed out to the LC-130 aircraft.
There we are given a two-minute, very-hurried pre-flight briefing. Normally you would think this would be pretty straightforward: “to release the seat belt, lift the buckle … count the number of seats to the nearest exit.”
(As an aside, why don’t commercial airlines just put a label on each seat saying, “your nearest exit is three rows back”, that would save everyone from counting, which no one does anyway.)
However, on an LC-130 there are some serious things to learn.
Foremost among these is the use of the emergency oxygen. It isn’t just a little yellow plastic mask that magically falls from the ceiling. It’s a military-issue hood in a green bag that you unclip from the railing behind your seat, unfold, and then pull various tags to release chemicals that generate oxygen. You then put the hood over your head and, hopefully, breathe.
A side effect of the chemical reaction is that the chemicals get very hot, so you have to be careful not to touch the reaction chamber in the hood.
Apparently the first sign of aircraft decompression is that the aircraft immediately fills with water condensation, and then your fellow passengers start to lose consciousness.
With the briefing over, twelve of us board the aircraft and prepare for take-off. With an explosion of noise we start barrelling down the runway, but after 67 seconds (yes, I was timing) the LC-130 shudders to a halt under reverse thrust. We then turn around and try again in the opposite direction. That also fails.
I’m getting a bad feeling about this.
Fortunately, on the third attempt we manage to lift our front ski and get airborne – nothing will stop us now.
We later learn from the crew that the snow was quite sticky and the wind was across the runway, which didn’t help. After the first two attempts, the skis on the LC-130 had made the snow sufficiently smooth that the final attempt was successful. Some deep-field sites (with a lot of loose snow) have required over a dozen take-off attempts.
The flight to the South Pole was uneventful and rapid – just 2.5 hours to go from latitude 78ºS to 90ºS.
The first hour of the flight took us over the spectacular Trans-Antarctic mountain range, riddled with glaciers and crevasses. It would be enormously difficult to cross this range without the benefit of aerial photography to know what lay ahead.
As the South Pole gets closer, the air pressure in the plane is reduced so that shortly after landing we will be at the same pressure as ice level, which corresponds to a pressure altitude of about 10,500 feet (3,200 metres) today. The pressure altitude can go above 12,100 feet (3,670 metres) when a low-pressure system passes overhead.
We start adjusting our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear in preparation for the Antarctic conditions, including our “big red” parka, gloves, balaclava, and ski goggles.
The landing on skis is beautifully smooth, and the LC-130 taxis to within 100 metres of the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole station. Upon disembarking, the crew vigorously directs us to the right (left leads into the propellers, which is an easy mistake to make when you are disorientated by the cold, the low air pressure, and the desire to take photographs).
Within ten minutes we are within the warm station building, and are given our room assignments and briefing notes.
The South Pole Station is dominated by the “elevated building”, a two-storey multi-wing structure supported off the ice by a number of large pylons. The elevation is necessary so that wind-blown snow can pass under the building rather than building up against the walls, and ultimately burying it.
The elevated building contains individual sleeping quarters for most of the 240 people on site, as well as a galley, medical centre, science labs, the communications centre, meeting rooms, a greenhouse, library, sauna, gym, and a few rooms for recreation.
Craig Kulesa, Abram Young, and David Lesser – all from the University of Arizona – are staying in the “summer camp”, which is a group of half-a-dozen Jamesway shelters about ten minutes walk from the elevated building.
The sudden jump in pressure altitude from sea level at McMurdo Station (where we departed from) to 3,200 metres has a very noticeable effect on the body. After a few hours I start to get a headache, which, fortunately, does not develop into more serious altitude sickness.
Sleeping is also difficult at altitude, and the extreme dryness of the air can cause nasty skin conditions and nasal problems. A small cut of the skin can take a very long time to heal due to the dry air.
The air is so dry because it’s so cold that almost all the water vapour in the air has simply frozen out as ice crystals. In fact, when the temperature drops below -50ºC – which it will do as the sun begins to set in about six weeks time (the sun is up 24 hours a day here at the moment) – the air becomes drier than cylinders of commercial dry nitrogen.
It has been a long and eventful day, but prior to heading to bed we meet with Al Baker, a senior manager on station, and discuss our logistical and cargo needs for the next few days. Continuing a theme that is one of the defining traits of the US Antarctic Program (USAP), everyone we meet is keen to help us have a successful mission.