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Friday, December 17, 2010

Food from the sky

We had an event of biblical proportions at the South Pole on Thursday.  Food came down from the skies.  16,000 lbs of if (~7,200 kg).  It was an air drop coordinated with the National Air Guard, part of our winterover training, in case we need emergency supplies during the 9 months of winter isolation.  A winter air drop is a rare emergency, and we hope that we will not need one this year, but better safe than sorry. 

16,000 lbs of food were delivered to us by air drop in a training exercise on Thursday.  The drop zone was located approximately 2 miles away from the station.

The air drop team is made up of seven of us winterovers.  We started preparing a couple of weeks ago studying and reviewing the procedure.  Then, last Saturday, we met with the C17 pilots and got some more details (what kind of chutes they use, how fast they drop, how precise they are, how they find the target, how they compensate for atmospheric conditions, altitude of the drop, bearings, how to fold the parachutes, etc).   Most importantly, we learned how to communicate with each other, when they are up in the air and we stand on the ground.  The worst thing that could happen is if one of the packages were to hit the station.  After the meeting with the pilots we went out to practice setting burn barrels on fire.  Burn barrels are positioned in very specific locations on the ice to visually designate the drop zone in the darkness of winter.  Of course, no need for them in the summer, but we still need to practice and make sure that we can set them up correctly.  It turns out that lighting a fire in -20 F (-29 C) is not an easy task.  It is even more difficult in the -90 F (-70 C) of winter, as the jet fuel does not vaporize enough to sustain a flame at that temperature.  So, we learned a few tricks.
The pilots also gave us the GPS coordinates of the air drop zone so, after the burn barrel exercise we drove two Pisten Bullys to the ice to located and stake the corners of the drop zone.  The following day our surveyors went to verify that we had put the stakes in the correct locations.  We were within 10~25 feet of our targets, which is well within our tolerances.
Then on Thursday, a few hours prior to the drop, we reviewed once more our safety procedures, and drove to our staging location close to the drop zone.  Everything went well.  In the packages, besides flours and cereal, the pilots sent us some surprise gifts (a stuffed penguin, some special cookies, and a few bottles of Scotch).

Setting up the burn barrels on fire: Christy, Ben, Kevin, Grace, and Marcopolie.

Marcopolie locating one of the corners of the drop zone with a handheld GPS, and Kevin ready to stake the location.  The station is barely visible on the horizon.

The C17 approaching the drop zone on Thursday, Dec 16.

The first packages leaving the plane.

The chutes opening up

The packages in free fall.  Each box is 48" x 48" x 48", or approximately 1 cubic meter, and weighs 1,000 lbs.

The packages hitting the ground.

After the plane left we moved into the drop zone to recover the parachutes.  It is important to recover them right away, because drifting snow could make the recovery much more difficult later on.  We worked in 20 mph winds and -20 F (-29 C) to first detach the parachute from the box.

Then we tied the ropes in a special knot called a daisy chain, we rolled the chutes, and carried them back to the station on a sled.  Here Christy and Grace in action.

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