Moving On SouthDecember 13th, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas
By Bob Bindschadler
1 December — I write this on the flight from Christchurch, New Zealand to The Ice. We are on an Air Force C-17, a monstrously large aircraft for transporting monstrously large amounts of cargo. In the old days, scientists and contractors traveling to the ice were treated much the same as cargo, but I’m pleased to have benefited in recent expeditions from the Air Force’s revelation that we are not quite the same. We used to be packed cheek to jowl in two rows of facing web seats, which forced us to literally rub elbows with our two neighbors and interleave knees with the people we faced across a nonexistent aisle. Most uncomfortable! Today I can stretch out my legs fully and not quite touch the pallet of cargo occupying the center of the aircraft. And there is more elbowroom between my neighbors than in economy class seats on most commercial airlines. The seats still can’t be described as anything approaching soft, but for those of us who know the past, there are no complaints.
We were processed early this morning in a manner very familiar to most modern air travelers—with a few twists. By 6:30 A.M. we arrived at the processing center, where we tried on and exchanged our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear yesterday. We changed out of street clothes into the required ECW outfit (thermal underwear, bibbed overalls fleece jacket, red parka and polar boots). Regular luggage carts are used to push our many bags of remaining ECW and personal items 30 yards to the adjacent room where everything is weighed (even us) and our checked bags are turned over to the cargo handlers. Our passports are examined; we’re given a boarding pass and told to wait in the lounge with just our hand-carry bag. And yes, there is a box into which our hand-carry must fit. Some venture out to get a breakfast at the Antarctic International Centre just across the green. We are asked to watch a 20-minute video introducing us to what we will encounter when arriving in McMurdo Station. It’s not an Oscar-winning production, but I suppose it helps the newcomers.
From there we line up and have our hand-carry bags scanned, laptops and other metal items removed for closer inspection while we do the all-too-familiar metal detector shuffle. Outside, a bus awaits and everyone must lumber onto it, pushing their way down the too-narrow center aisle and flopping down onto a bench seat. It is not easy: your bag is heavy, your boots are multiple sizes too big for dexterous ambulation, and you are trying to tame your massive parka under your arm, but all it wants to do is snag everything you pass! Apologies abound. Oh, and have I mentioned that the sun is now up and the temperature is climbing? It is getting warm inside the bus. Inside your clothes, it’s even warmer.
You have made a move so it is now time to wait—again. Waiting always seems to be required. Trying to get comfortable is not easy, moving is not easy, removing clothing is impossible. Stay still. The bus moves—hooray! The driver negotiates a couple of security gates and rolls onto the tarmac, stopping reasonably close to your next objective—the airplane stairs. But to reach this goal, you must first reverse the process suffered to get on the bus. I wish for a gently sloped jetway bridge, but know this is an unrequited dream—instead, I get an alpine traveling with lots of ups and down. Safely descending the bus stairs is harder than going up. This group is good; no one falls. But before you reach the airplane stairs, you have to figure out how to pick up the offerings of a water bottle and a bagged lunch. A third (or even fourth) hand would be welcome, but you manage and in this heavily overloaded state you must high-step your way onto the plane. Once inside, you are met with a stark reminder that this is how most cargo, as well as you, gets to Antarctica, and this is shared accommodation. There is enough room to stow your parka—now it comes in handy because it makes a hard seat acceptably softer—and you settle in while others find their own solution of where to sit and put their bags. The next safety briefing is nearly word-for-word identical to the one on commercial airliners, with additional instructions on the use of an over-the-head oxygen hood in case of emergencies.
Once airborne and at cruising altitude, people start milling about, careful to stay off the cargo, as well as read, sleep and converse (although the engines are rather loud and everyone is wearing earplugs). The only windows are very small portholes positioned more to inspect the engines and wings than to offer scenic views. Lots of laptops are out. Some people hit their lunch early. Others wait until hunger arrives.
The flight will take just over 5 hours. Our world is about to change.