my trip to the Antarctica and the South Pole

Friday, November 05, 2004

Pinch me.

Yesterday was possibly one of the coolest days of my life. I spent the day time preparing for Helium. After months of being out of this precious commodity needed for the experiments, we were finally getting some in--and I was to be it's escort from the big town, McMurdo Station. I was to leave Pole sometime the next morning to meet it. After spending all day getting ready for the big arrival, I went for a jog on the treadmill, only to hear my call sign over the radio a few mintues into it. "Cryo Chris, Cryo Chris, do you copy?" It was Cargo Paddy, the woman in charge of the Helium delivery. She told me that due to weather, all flights tomorrow out of Pole had been cancelled. She asked if I could be ready for the 8 o'clock flight out tonight. It was 6:20. I told her no problem, and ran off the treadmill. I spent the next hour or so throwing my stuff around my room and into bags, scarfing down dinner in the galley, and packing some snacks for the ride. No free peanuts on the LC-130. I walked out to the skiway with a backpack and an empty larger bag for all the stuff I was going to bring back for my friends from MacTown (McMurdo's nickname)...mostly good booze we can't get at Pole. We were motioned onto the plane...four passengers in all. This was a designated fuel plane, meaning it offloaded it's extra fuel from it's tanks into our reservoirs, so we could have enough to run the station. It's too cold for loading cargo at the Pole, so the belly of the plane was mostly empty except for us and our luggage. I had a "window seat", and watched the station disappear into the vast whiteness as we took off. Strange to see everything that has sustained you for the past few weeks disappear into nothing in a matter of minutes.

But the adventure had just started. Not long into the flight, one of the loadmasters invited us into the cockpit. I was a tourist at first, taking lots of pictures and gawking at the amazing view. It was clear then at our altitude of about 20K, and the landscape was peppered with mountains. I started asking a lot of questions, especially of the navigator, and his radar. Either out of fustration or generosity, he eventually just gave me a headset. A few minutes later, I was chatting with the entire crew, consisting of our Pilot, co-Pilot, navigator, flight engineer, and 2 loadmasters. We got to know where everybody was from, and a little about what they do. I mainly just stood between the pilot and co-pilot, watching as the clouds filled in beneath us and overcast the Antarctic plateau. I made no motion of leaving when they started their descent, and nobody mentioned that I should. I heard all the weather reports, the pre-landing briefing, and the plans for a ARA (radar assisted) landing. Visibility was reported as 6 thousand, and our pilot was freaked out for a second because he thought they said 6 hundred. He had them repeat it three times. They decided to do a practice landing that involved going around almost 360 degrees around the runway, and be guided in by flight ops at McMurdo. We started our descent, and at 8K, we popped through the clouds to reveal a stunning sight of blue glaciers, rocky mountains, and sea ice. I was standing right behind the co-pilot, holding onto the handle they advised me to when the turbulance hit. The navigator pointed out all the sights to me, including the mountains he was advising the pilot on regarding their altitude. "You're fine at this altitude over the mountain, but not if we continue this descent rate." Hmm....not exactly making me comfortable with that comment. Neither was the fact that every few minutes they told the pilot a new mileage and corresponding altitude, and they kept forgetting and saying things like "was that nineteen thousand at 10 miles, or twenty six?" It seemed like we were literally weaving between mountains, guided by visuals of the pilot and instructions from the radar guy. Details in the sea ice and glaciers were becoming clearer as the pilot read through his falling altitudes. The view was blowing my mind, and I couldn't even believe I was actually there. No tray tables or seat backs to put up. I was STANDING in the COCKPIT, behind the freaking co-pilot at 1000 feet!!!! Finally, at 800 feet, when it looked like were just bouncing low above the sea ice, they said that I might want to sit down. I sat on a bench at the back of the cockpit and listened to the directions coming from McMurdo. "slightly to left of course and high...heading two nine five" over and over. No automation whatsoever. Landing gear down. Engine 4 looking squirrely. They have a load master go to check the front landing gear because this red light keeps coming on in their panel. The load master reports that the ski is down. It shouldn't be. Since we're landing on an ice runway, we're supposed to be using only the wheels. We are on FINAL finall approach. The runway is RIGHT THERE. They abandon the landing, pull up and around, and the flight engineer flies out of the cockpit to get a visual on the landing gear. My pulse is absolutely racing. After a warning about a nearby mountain that the pilot insists he has a visual on and doesn't need warning about, the flight engineer returns and says we're fine. The ski is only partially down, and being held up by a piece of hardware designed for that. Just land high and bring the nose down slowly, he tells the pilot. SERIOUSLY! The pilot decides he's had enough practice and he's going to do the landing visually only. Nobody speaks and he heads for the runway. A visual-only landing in a sea of whiteness on flaky landing gear. God help us. I loosen my seatbelt and stretch up for a view of the runway getting closer. Soon the familiar buildings surrounding it are crystal clear, and flying by. Holding my breath, we touch down, first in back, then, nervously, in front. That was the sigh of relief that could be heard around the world.

Minutes later, I am outside the plane on the sea ice, marvelling at the first almost-sunset I've seen in weeks. We ate midnight rations ("midrats") with our LC-130 crew that night, and I found my way to my room eventually falling asleep around 2:30am. It's sometimes hard to believe this is really my life.


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