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Tuesday, October 18, 2011


The title of this blog could have been “The first plane” or “End of Isolation”, but I decided it should be what most of all I was waiting for during the last eight months of isolation at the South Pole: freshies.  Freshies is Antarctica jargon for fresh fruit and vegetables, of which, as anybody can imagine, there is very limited supply, if any at all.  We have been blessed this year with good harvests from our greenhouse, which have provided lettuce, tomatoes, kale, eggplants, cucumbers, etc. but, with the exception of half an orange for each one of us that was airdropped here at the South Pole on Aug 29, we had not seen a fresh piece of fruit since we ate the last of the apples back in March. 
Apart from the freshies, the real big event yesterday was the landing of the first planes of the season.  Two of them arrived.  Their primary reason for landing here was not to bring us freshies, but to refuel on their way across the continent from Rothera, the British research station on the Antarctic Peninsula, to McMurdo.  They are Baslers, vintage DC-3 airplanes that have been refurbished for polar travel.  They are chartered to the US Antarctic Program from Kenn Borek, a Canadian company.  It took them about two weeks to arrive, coming all the way from Calgary, in Canada, hopping from airport to airport along the American continent, and then across Antarctica.  They will be stationed at McMurdo for the rest of the season, carrying passengers and cargo to the South Pole first, and then to field camps in Antarctica.  While they were refueling today, they also picked up three of us who had urgent needs to get back to the US, leaving only 46 of us to run the station until the summer crew arrives in a few days.

The pilots and mechanics of the two Baslers took the time, on their last stop in Punta Arena in Chile, to go to the store and, out of their own good heart and pockets, buy some fresh fruit and vegetables for us.  They handed us large grocery store bags full of apples, oranges, pears, and lettuce.  It is not the first time that these pilots come to the South Pole, and they know what we most long for after 8 months of isolation.  There was enough for a big apple for each of us, an orange and a large bowl of lettuce.  We love you, Kenn Borek pilots and mechanics!

The planes were on the ground only 45 minutes: just the time to taxi to our pit, refuel, and taxi back out the skiway for takeoff.  Several of us worked hard in the previous days to groom the skiway, prepare the fuel pit, and, today, to deliver the precious juice. 

At home we always have to stop the engine before we refuel our cars.  Not at the South Pole.  The weather, although gorgeous yesterday, with very good visibility and almost no wind, was a chilly -59 C (-74 F), which is colder than what the Baslers are rated for.  The oil in the engine can freeze very quickly if the engine stops, so the pilots kept the propellers turning all the time while refueling, and the operation had to be carried out as quickly as possible.  The cloud seen in the picture is ice that is lifted in the air by the action of the propellers. 
The sun was already 9 degrees above the horizon, and, with the reflection from the snow, it is very bright out.
In this photo we can see the flight engineer sitting on the right wing of the airplane, pumping fuel into it. 
Ready for takeoff.  As the pilot revs up the propellers, the cloud of snow becomes gigantic.

This photo was taken on Aug 30.  As I mentioned earlier in this blog, we had some oranges air dropped to us by the Air Force on Aug 29.  It is not that the Air Force made a special mission to the South Pole just to send us some oranges.  Rather, this was a special mission to deliver some critical medical supplies, the first winter air drop at the South Pole in the last 10 years.  Because the medical supplies were not heavy enough for the parachutes to operate properly, the Air Force added to the packages some mail and, what they knew we mostly desired, some freshies.  When we divided them up, we each got half an orange – probably the most expensive piece of food that ever will have passed through my mouth.

Preparing for the Aug 29 air drop, in the middle of the polar night, was not a simple task.  We were given four-day notice to get ready.  We had to groom 160 acres of ice (0.6 Sq Km) to provide a smooth landing for the packages.  Within this area we had to set on fire barrels full of jet fuel to mark the point of impact.  The barrels had to be positioned in very specific locations to form a pattern that would be recognized by the pilots.  Lighting up fuel at -80 F is not easy because the cold does not allow the fuel to vaporize and burn.  We used special tricks that we had learned when we trained during the summer, and it all worked very well.  My primary responsibility was to calculate the locations of the barrels based on a sketch provided by the Air Force, and navigate to the calculated locations using a GPS.  Once the packages landed, we had to quickly find them – not an easy task in the middle of the night – and then bring them into the station as quickly as possible before the medical supplies would freeze.  Almost every single one of the 49 of us was involved in one way or another in this operation.  In this photo by Robert we see the burn barrels on the ground, and the airplane (a massive 4-jet-engine C-17) making a pass over the drop zone.  The long exposure reveals the path of the aircraft.

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