Getting A Wish

January 3rd, 2012 by Patrick Lynch

By Bob Bindschadler

McMurdo (Antarctica), 19 December — Well, it is the holiday season and we are being forced to recognize it by accepting fewer Hercs and fewer crews to fly them for these two weeks (not to mention extending the no-fly Sundays to no-fly weekends both weeks).  So maybe we should expect to have at least one wish granted that might bring us some holiday joy.  Our granted wish comes in the form of a Twin Otter flight to assess whether that airplane can land at or near our desired drilling camp location on the ice shelf.  This could be a real “game changer” because it not only would allow us to get onto the ice shelf earlier than having to wait for all the helo support infrastructure to be set up at the PIG Main Camp. But it would also free up some helicopter time, allowing us to limit the helo work to those tasks that can only be done with the helo, helping us recover some lost time.  There are no guarantees, however. The difference it would make has motivated the program coordinators to arrange for an Otter flight early this week to find out.  Weather today (Monday) was poor at Byrd (where the Twin Otter is) so we wait until tomorrow.

Meanwhile there was great anticipation this weekend for another attempt at the Herc put-in to PIG Main Camp on Monday, but the report from the group at PIG grooming the runway was not optimistic.  Again, their words vividly describe what the Herc pilots would have faced:

The large 3’ sastrugi has been knocked down, but there are still large rollers…the drop off cliffs have been smoothed over, but there are still many humps approximately 30 meters wide.

Most camps have a flat skiway with sastrugi on the surface.  PIG is not level underneath, but has long rollers, waves, and ripples, with the sastrugi on top of that, so it is taking awhile to groom.

The Heavy Equipment Operator feels that three quarters of the skiway has inconvenient rollers.  One quarter has more dangerous features since the plane will hit them at an angle, and there is a small, potential risk for a wing to hit.

Would you want to fly your $60-plus million airplane there before more work was done on the skiway?  I wouldn’t.  So I was neither surprised nor indignant when Tim McGovern, the top NSF person in McMurdo right now, told me that he and Mark Sakadolsky, the commander of the Air National Guard operations here, had decided to wait one more day before trying to land a Herc at PIG.  It’s the prudent approach.

In hopeful anticipation of a positive report back from the Twin Otter pilots, I called a science team meeting today to discuss science priorities.  There could be a massive shift in the ordering of flights to PIG in the offing.  We could have ourselves and much of our science cargo moved ahead of a lot of the Main Camp material and the accoutrements required for the helicopters.  Eventually we will still need the helicopters out there to accomplish some parts of our science program, but the possibility of getting going sooner is palpable.  Your “picture for the day” shows us discussing our plans.

The science team meets to discuss next steps. Credit: Bob Bindschadler, NASA

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Notes from the Field