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Sunday, December 19, 2010

AGO: A flight over Antarctica

I was eating lunch with the seismologists on Saturday when Comms called me on the radio: "You have 20 minutes to get to the plane".  We had been on weather delay for the last 48 hrs, trying to get to the AGO 1 field camp to pull Bob, Andy, and Dustin from the site that they had gone out to service six days before.  It had been stormy and windy at Pole, but right after noon the Twin Otter pilots decided that we had a narrow window of opportunity to attempt the 6 hrs roundtrip flight, before conditions would worsen at AGO 1.  AGO stands for Automatic Geophysics Observatory.  There are 5 stations scattered around the continent.  They are autonomous, powered by solar and wind energy, with battery backups.  They transmit data back to the US via satellite phone.  Among other things, they measure magnetism, ionospheric phenomena, and they image the sky in the winter: a small scale version of what I do at Pole, so I had been invited by Bob to visit the site and help them pull out.  AGO 1 is 440 miles from the South Pole and it takes about 2.5 hrs to reach on a Twin Otter.  It was the trip of a lifetime!  I will let the pictures tell the story.

The Twin Otter parked at Pole before taking off to AGO 1 in windy and overcast conditions.  The Twin Otter is operated by Kenn Borek Air, a Canadian company based in Calgary that specializes in flight operations to remote locations.

Plenty of leg room in the cabin.  It was just the pilots and me on the way out.  No cargo.

Randy and Travis, our pilots, specialize on ice flights.  In the austral summer they fly in Antarctica.  At the end of January it will take them two weeks to fly the Twin Otter back to Calgary, where they will rest for a short period before starting the Arctic season.  They are specially trained to land on ice.  The trickiest part in Antarctica is to land on the sastrugi without compromising the landing gear; in the Arctic it is to judge the thickness of the ice floes and make sure they can support the weight of the plane.  Luckily we have solid ice here in Antarctica to land on.

Despite the storm at the South Pole, it was a smooth flight out to AGO 1, with tail wind.

There were no geographic features for the entire flight: not a mountain, not a crevasse.  Just ice, with regular undulations glimmering in the low angle antarctic light, and sastrugi.  We flew most of the time about 2,000 feet above the surface of the ice.  The wind creates large features on the ice that from a distance look just the same as the sastrugi look from the ground, making it impossible to judge the elevation of the plane without an altimeter. 

This is the AGO 1 station: 8" x 24", powered by a 1 kW wind turbine and 4 solar panels.  The closest human presence is 440 miles away, at the South Pole.  This building contains the control electronics for the scientific equipment scattered around the ice, two bunk beds, and a small stove.  Every few years the station is raised along the 4 posts at the corners to prevent it from sinking under the accumulating ice.

A view of the AGO 1 from a distance shows, right to left, the scientific instruments marked with flags, the control station with the windmill, a snowmobile, and a food cache.  The food stays frozen and is good for 10 years before it gets replaced.  There is also a fuel cache not seen in the picture. 

While we were closing the station, gathering the equipment, and loading the cargo, the pilots refueled the plane.

We only spent 1 hour on the ground.  It was not cold (probably around 0 F, or -18 C), but very windy (at least 20 mph).

Before taking off I stopped for a minute to look out into the white infinity and imagine what Amundsen and Scott must have experienced 99 years ago.  Imagine being here, in the middle of nowhere, with just skis and sleds, no satellite phone, and no GPS!

Bob (left) and Dustin (right) on the ride back.  Bob is the chief engineer of the AGO program.  He left a scientific career at Bell Labs several years ago to join the Antarctic Research Program.  He had my job 5 years ago.  Now he works for the New Jerswy Institute of Technology, where he designs and builds the equipment that is deployed to the AGO stations.  In the austral summer he spends 3 months in Antarctica bringing new science and upgrades.  Dustin is the mountaineer in the group.  In real life he is a mountain guide on Mt. McKinley in Alaska.  His job is to ensure the safety of the group in the harsh Antarctic environment.  He is also the expedition cook. 

Riding in the back of the plane was Andy.  Andy is the most eclectic engineer I ever met.  He can fix just about anything electrical or mechanical, and he can build beautifully working equipment out of scrap (an essential skill in Antarctica, where the closest store is thousands of miles away).  He is also the person who fixed the bicycle at the South Pole station (I owe him a lot just for that).

Not much leg room left after we loaded all the cargo ... but still beats a first class seat!


  1. Ciao Marco, abbiamo ricevuto la tua cartolina qualche giorno fa. Su 6 miliardi di persone sulla terra, forse qualche centinaio ricevono una cartolina dal polo. E questi la riceveranno 1 sola volta nell'arco di una vita.
    Insomma, è stata una strana sensazione avere fra le mani qualcosa che proviene da quel paradiso bianco ("white paradise" come tu lo hai definito).
    Tanti auguri di buon Natale e felice anno nuovo! Stefano, Marina, Riccardo e Filippo

  2. Hey Marco,

    I hope everything is going well down there. Since Santa is from the North Pole, I'm not sure what they have down there. Anyway, I am wishing you a very Merry Christmas and happy New Year. I'm on my way to Shanghai tomorrow to visit relatives and retrieve my family. Check in with you later!

    Marc Helvey

  3. tanti auguri Marco dalla fredda e piovosa blue sky since many days!....we come to visit you ;-)
    Paolo Simona & Anna

  4. I am a radio ham and worked Andy at AGO Camp 4. Please list the coordinates of the vrious camps. Thanks

    Phil Finkle K6EID

  5. Love the photos. Andy (my brother) looks, well, like he's up to something as usual. Thanks!