What we thought was to be our last flight turned out to be a false start. The window of opportunity to get a plane on the deck here is often transient, and predicting it four hours out as the plane gets ready to depart Willy Field at McMurdo is challenging. Sure enough, we were informed that ‘Skier 2-1’ had checked ‘Pole 3’, a navigation waypoint 3/4 of the way here, 210 miles out. The conditions outside were not looking favourable with strong winds blowing a lot of snow and reducing visibility well less than the mile needed to land on the skiway. As we huddled out at the Fuel shack wrapped up to the nines, waiting to see if anything would loom out of the mist, we heard the roar of the Herc pass overhead, barely visible through the cloud even though it was what seemed about 50m off the ground. After circling for a couple of hours, hoping for a clearing in the weather, it headed back to McMurdo, several hundred litres of jet fuel worse off.
The next day looked more promising, with a clear day with good vis. The approaching Herc was visible a way out, as it made contrails in the cold air, right on the edge of its performance limits. The last flight proved to be a chance to expand my skillset. I was lucky enough to have the honour of the role of marshalling the last LC-130 on to the skiway apron. Guided by John, one of the fuels operators, who was lining up the fueling port on the plane with the hose of his fuel bowser, I ushered the plane forward using my new found moves that were something of a cross between Billy Bowden and a 80s dance floor. The roar of the planes is always impressive, seeming all the more impressive when you are looking right into the cockpit.
The crew for the last couple of flights, practiced their combat offload, where they push the palletised cargo out the back cargo ramp as the plane is taxiing down the apron. This avoids them coming to standstill, putting hydraulics and other cold sensitive parts at risk in the Antarctic conditions, or in combat zones, more time in an at risk environment.
Over the summer, the frequency of flights means that the US Air Force stipulates a full firefighting team is on station, to deal with any potential accidents or events. As the flights draw to an end, the fire crew are on the flight out, with our trusty band of mechanics/scientists/IT guys/electricians come firefights, ready to step up. Manning ‘Elephant man’, the fire fighting tender, and trained in a crash course (so to speak) in firefighting in Denver before we deployed, these guys are ready to step up and deal with any mishap that might happen on the flight line, or during the whole season, anywhere on station.
It is always an emotional day when you say goodbye to the last of the summer’s crew, who represent your last contact with the outside world, but more importantly, you last chance to escape should second thoughts about the lucidity of spending 9 months cut off from the world.
It is a tradition that on the last flight, the crew does a return pass over the base to tip their wings goodbye to us. This hasn’t always been followed in previous seasons, much the chagrin of the seasoned veterans who see it as a marker of good fortune for the long winter ahead. As the plane taxied to its position on the long run out the skiway, we all scattered to different vantage points, hoping that the path taken would provide us with the optimal shot to see the flyover from. As the plane lifted off, I legged it to the Ceremonial South Pole, with the station in the background. After what seemed to be a disconcertingly long time, where we weren’t sure it would come back, the roar of the four turboprops soon reappeared, and sure enough, the Herc came down out of the sun, in low over the base, banking to the left to avoid the (flight operation free) Clean Air Sector before, passing back towards Grid South, and on their way back home.
The 48 of us, now left to our own devices could now wander what seemed to be a ghost station given the efflux of 100 residents in the preceding week. If being isolated for nine months is not bad enough, some black humour has been well instilled in to the traditions here. Why not watch a horror about being stuck in Antarctica in the dark with alien monsters. Well, why not watch three different reincarnations of the same classic! ‘The Thing’, first filmed in 1952 and set at the North Pole, has been made twice more with the second two installments being set in Antarctica. Our marathon session had to be delayed to that weekend, but we got to watch Kurt Russell in all of his 1980s goodness, followed by a more modern version. Afterwards, we all went to the storeroom to pick up our government issue flamethrower for the impending alien onslaught.