D-Day (attempt two)
Friday the 15th proved to be a false start for our ice flight, with it being cancelled for 24/24 due to severe turbulence and risk of icing on the flight south over the Southern Ocean. Standard.
Thankfully for me, I have family in Christchurch, so got a chance to spend some more quality time with Sister and brother in law, as well as my nephew who will be a lot bigger and mobile by the time I next see him. And when you are away from normal civilisation for good part of a year, I had one last fix to satisfy which I hadn’t had a chance yet to do. The guys that have already deployed down on the ice were rueful about not being able to see Star Wars: the Force Awakens, so the least I could do was go and see it. It obviously didn’t disappoint.
One last meal, of gourmet beef fillet and fresh veggies whipped up by my brother in law followed, my last live sport watching the Black Caps test our commitment, then back to the hotel to check in on rescheduled departure time. And some much needed sleep after a relatively nerve wracked and shortened sleep the night before.
The next morning dawned with a lot less blustery conditions. The last unlimited shower for 10 months was savoured before heading back out to check in, and watch the briefing videos straight out of the early ’90s. The first flight south on US Air National Guard LC-130 Hercules was full so myself and Ken, the McMurdo doctor for the winter, got bumped on to our own private spacious flight down accompanied by a Herc’ full of new radome antennae equipment. Some noise cancelling headphones had been a key investment during my recent travelling, although the din of a 1970s generation plane still managed to permeate through both them and a set of ear plugs. At least David Bowie could give me some company to overcome the rattle.
I can understand why the military retrieval docs are ditching the Steths in favour of handheld ultrasound for most diagnostics in this environment!
Having a yarn with the loadmaster who controls the body of plane about the upcoming trip.
“Is this your first time to the ice?”
“Are you going to be based at McMurdo”
– “No, I’m off to Pole in a few days” [the lingo is not to call it the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station, or even ‘the South Pole’ or ‘the Pole’, just ‘Pole’!]
“Oh nice, what is your role?”
– “I’m the base doctor for the winter”
“Wait, hold on. So it’s your first time, you’re not just going to McMurdo, you’re off to the Pole and you’re going for the whole winter. Okay…well… Good luck!”
– “you can’t do things by half measures. And it’s too late to back out now…”
The flight down was fantastic, with smooth conditions and the privilege of being able to ride up in the cockpit. In today’s commercial air travel safety zealous environment, it is crazy that I essentially could go up there as much as I wanted once in flight.
The first 7 our of the 8 hour flight down was just flying above or through cloud, with the only thing of interest was picking out Campbell Island on the Navigator’s radar screen, and sending emails home (purely for the novelty) from the flight comms system. We managed to stretch out and nap on the flight down, but for the last hour, the cockpit was the place to be.
The approach in to McMurdo Sound over the Ross Sea, with the western border hemmed by the Admiralty and Victory mountains of Victoria land, and the smoking Erebus looming to the east was serene, with the stark contrast of the deep blue of the sea and sky versus the white sea ice and mountains in between.
We flew over the edge of the sea ice, following the line that the USCGC Polar Star, an American Ice breaker, had made in the sea ice to open a channel for impending resupply vessels. Once we passed McMurdo station to our east, we banked around the southern tip of Ross Island and landing on skis on Williams Field. ‘Willy Field’ is built on 80m thick permanent ice shelf, and can support the LC-130 (L denoting a ski-fitted aircraft, and C for cargo) year round. The larger C-17 Globemaster aircraft can only land on the ‘Blue-Ice’ runway at Pegasus, which lies further afield and is not operation in December-January due to the warmer weather destroying the landing surface. There is also a sea-ice runway earlier in the season which becomes unoperational once the sea ice breaks up.
After that, it was a half hour ride in to McMurdo station, past the nearby New Zealand Scott Base, and then time to meet, greet and orientate.