Commercial flights can only take Antarctic travelers as far as Christchurch. After that, USAP participants rely on chartered flights on special military aircraft, which are equipped for the polar conditions. The airplane I took was a LC-130, also known as a Hercules. There are no direct flights to the South Pole from Christchurch — instead, I took a flight to McMurdo, which is the main scientific research station in Antarctica. At the peak of the summer season, it houses up to 1,000 people. McMurdo is located on the coast of Antarctica (actually on a small island, Ross Island, which is locked in by seasonal sea ice on one side and the Ross Ice Shelf on the other). It is located at 77 degrees 51 minutes S, 166 degrees 40 minutes E and is the southernmost land accessible by ship. Since it is below the Antarctic circle, the sun never sets during the Antarctic summer.
Traveling on a military plane is quite different from traveling on a commercial flight. There were about twelve of us on the flight, plus the crew. We had to get weighed along with our baggage, and each passenger was issued a paper bag of rations (sandwiches, an apple, crackers, and a candy bar), a water bottle, and a set of earplugs. The plane was white and shiny outside and one large open space mostly filled with cargo inside, with about four rows of seats added in the front. Military aircraft are LOUD — the earplugs helped, but I was very glad that I had my noise canceling headphones! Even then, it was louder than a commercial flight. It was also cold — the plane did have heating, but it wasn’t able to warm the plane up to a normal room temperature. Fortunately, we were all required to carry on our ECW, so I had my nice, warm parka to use as a blanket.
The flight was about eight hours total. Most of it was over ocean, but we did fly over glacier-drowned mountain ranges for a good hour or two at the end of the flight. The plane belonged to the Italian government, so we made a brief stop at the Italian Antarctic base at Terra Nova Bay on the way to McMurdo. Sadly I didn’t get to go check out the cockpit view because a New Zealand camera crew working for National Geographic was on my flight and they were up there filming for all of the exciting (non-ocean) parts of the trip…and I slept most of the ocean part anyway. Instead I contented myself with the view from the small windows in the main body of the airplane, which was still pretty incredible.
Another joy of Antarctic air travel is last-minute changes in flight times. In the end, our flight left at 2:30am, which meant that I had to leave my hotel for the airport at 12:30am. We all groaned about the early start, but the pilot was keen to beat incoming weather at McMurdo. Since the weather in Antarctica changes quickly, sometimes flights get most of the way there and then have to turn around and fly back to Christchurch. This is called “boomeranging.” When a flight boomerangs, you don’t get all of your checked baggage back — just a single “boomerang bag,” which hopefully contains enough clothes and other necessities to keep you going until you actually make it to McMurdo. We all groaned about the early start but in our case it was good we left early — the weather got worse as the day went on, and by the time we landed the wind was howling and blowing snow everywhere. A commercial plane might not have been able to land, but we hardly even felt turbulence coming down.
We landed at Pegasus airfield, which is about 19 miles from McMurdo on the Ross Ice Sheet. At this part of the ice sheet, the ice is at least 50 feet thick (which is good, since the heavy planes landing and taking off put a lot of stress on the ice). From there we took a “terra bus” shuttle across the ice and into town. The ice field was surrounded by mountains, which were vaguely visible through the blowing snow. I hope I get to see the view from the airfield when conditions are clear sometime; even from the glimpses I got, I could tell that it was quite beautiful.
The road to McMurdo took us past Scott Base (the center of operations for Antarctica New Zealand), over a ridge, and into town. McMurdo is a surprisingly large settlement, with a bar, a club, a coffee house, a church, a post office, two ATMs, and even a hairdresser. Most of the important facilities (including the dining hall/galley) are in one large building in the center of town. My room is also in this building. I’m in temporary housing, since hopefully I will be leaving soon to go to Pole. The room is very similar to college dorm rooms; I swear that they even use the same air freshener. I don’t have a window, but even though there are four beds in the room I’m lucky enough to not have a roommate. (The station population is roughly one-quarter female, so it’s not surprising that I’m one of the only women requiring temporary housing at the moment.)
After we arrived we got a standard briefing, where we learned some basic station rules and where some of the important buildings were, and then we were left to our own devices. I was the only scientist (“grantee”) on my flight, and the only person going on to the South Pole. Besides the camera team, everyone else was coming down to perform various support roles, ranging from airplane mechanic to operating heavy machinery. It takes a lot of support staff to make operations run here; when seen from the outside McMurdo resembles a shipping depot or industrial center, with crates everywhere and bulldozers and other machines constantly in motion. Most people work 7:30am to 5:30pm, but the station operates 24/7, so there is always someone on duty. It is an especially busy season this year, as a number of scientific projects were deferred from last year due to the government shutdown.
I was only supposed to be in McMurdo overnight, before flying out to the South Pole station the next day. Unfortunately, my luck with the weather ran out, and I’ve been delayed three days so far. This isn’t all bad, as I’ve had a chance to explore town and the surrounding area a bit (more on that to come), but I hope that I make it down soon. There is a lot to do when I get there, and I’m eager to get started!