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Pine Island Glacier 2011: Done in a Flash

January 12th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

McMurdo (Antarctica), 12 January — The optimists following this blog would have likely assumed that the absence of new postings this past week meant that we were finally in the field and that the work was finally underway. Those optimists would be half-right; we were at the PIG Main Camp this past week, but the work was not getting done. There is so much that transpired since my last blog post concerning the possible flight deploying us to PIG Main Camp that to avoid a very long story, I will start with the ending and fill in the middle bits as time permits in subsequent entries, ending with an epilogue.

The helicopters never arrived, we were hammered by strong winds, a small subset of us installed some scientific equipment by Twin Otter to monitor the ice shelf, and we were ordered home much, much too early. The flight from McMurdo to Christchurch, NZ leaves early tomorrow morning. I’m manifested on it, have dragged by bags and had them taken from me, but because of some medivacs expected to be on the plane (burn victims from a Korean fishing vessel nearby), some of us may get bumped off the flight. I’ve been in McMurdo less than 24 hours. We arrived by taking a Twin Otter from PIG to Byrd Station yesterday, then waiting two hours and catching a Herc back to McMurdo. Jeez, connections like that just don’t happen in Antarctica (it was not planned).

The Twin Otters were at PIG because I practically begged NSF to provide me with some resources to execute at least part of our science program. A decision had been made by NSF the day we left McMurdo that if the helos were not able to be flown to PIG by Saturday, January 7, this year’s field work would be cancelled. I was never told this directly by NSF (I’m still frosted about that), and the messenger couldn’t find me, so he told others in my group (also not the best approach—McMurdo isn’t that big that anyone can’t be found—and it was known when I would be heading for the skiway).

So we actually did make it to PIG Main Camp on an early flight Tuesday, January 3. The weather there was beautiful—a slight breeze and brilliant sunshine. The camp workers provided a very nice reception; they were happy to have some working scientists on hand. The carpenters and camp staff had done an excellent job putting a camp together quickly and were still working on the last couple of buildings. The skiway was wonderful, allowing us to glide smoothly to a graceful stop just by the fuel pit. The combination of staff, carps and scientists added to a camp population of 35—too much for the small galley to accommodate at one time, so we planned to eat in shifts. We were given a quick orientation of the do’s and don’ts, the where’s and the who’s. Then we hustled off to set up tents, while the good weather held.

The weather continued to hold for another day, but the helos didn’t come. The weather forecasts were dismal at both McMurdo and PIG, but in actuality, the weather remained good at both places. This was frustrating, especially when the weather the next day started to deteriorate. We worked through our cargo—some had not been seen for two years when we tested our equipment at Windless Bight—preparing for either helos or the Twin Otter to start moving us onto the ice shelf. Neither came. Weather worsened. And we were into our first storm warning. Camp prepared by putting many more flags out to help people find their way from the tent area to the stronger buildings. Most chose to ride out the storm in their tents. I built a pretty high snow wall. It was a noisy night with winds gusting to well over 40 knots, but no one had any hair-raising experiences. Lots of drifts built up and a few folks had to shovel them down once or twice during the night.

Better weather usually follows a storm like this, but it didn’t lead to any flights coming our way. When Friday arrived, the great powers that control everything in the US Antarctic Program notified me that they had to talk to me. The message was a reminder of the “drop-dead” date.

(Here, I’m going to have to stop temporarily. My flight to Christchurch is scheduled to arrive very early tomorrow and I need to be prepared for it. I’ll pick up the story in my next entryshouldn’t be too long a wait.)

Pine Island Glacier 2011: What A Drag

January 5th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

McMurdo (Antarctica), 30 December — This post may read a little rushed because, well, I’m rushing today. The stakeholders meeting Wednesday afternoon resulted in an accelerated timeline and we have been “hot-footing” it ever since.

The “drag” in the title is for bag drag. It is a good thing. It means you are being checked-in, weighed and being given a boarding pass (yup, they use them here, too). It means you are about to go someplace other than the mess hall (for yet another meal). It means you have had to clean out your room (can you believe they have inspections to make sure you are not leaving your bad habits behind?) For us, it means we are going to PIG tomorrow.

This morning I called a meeting of our team to discuss what will happen once we get to PIG Main Camp and what will the sequence of cargo and people be once we start moving over to the Drill Camp. It was our last chance to meet in a comfortable format, all seated around the same table. Things will change radically tomorrow. The camp already has 19 people in it; 23 after the four new arrivals on today’s flight (#4). These are split roughly equally between camp staff and carpenters. We ten will drive the total to a bulging 33. There are two tents up. We will likely have to eat in two or three shifts.

Our work there will focus on finding our traversed cargo, combining it with what will be flown out with us tomorrow, and organizing the total into time-sequenced loads destined for the ice shelf. Monday (or more likely the next good-weather day), we are supposed to receive a Twin Otter from Byrd camp that will begin to move people and cargo to the Drill Camp. We will start with a few people, survival gear and shelter. The Otter will help us again the next day (we hope it will stay overnight, but its orders are not to get stuck at PIG) to continue to move to the Drill Camp. Ultimately we have over 30,000 pounds of stuff to move, so we will not be able to complete the move these two days.

Also on Monday, there will be two Herc flights to PIG (that’s right, TWO), each carrying a partially disassembled helicopter. Once they are reassembled (a two-day task), they will continue to move our stuff (we’re saving some of the most heavy and awkward pieces for them). I hope we can finish this off in one more day, but I’m fearful it will take two more, so it is very likely this moving will be interrupted by bad weather. Thus, we are trying to be careful to ensure that the right people are at the right place with the right pieces to be able to be productive even if the weather is not conducive to helo flying. Yet another puzzle. There have been many and it is the nature of field work.

This next phase will be a bit of a scramble. If we do it right, everyone will be pretty busy and we will be making progress all the time. That scrambling may make future blog entries more difficult. I am in the advance party going to the Drill Camp. Until the dust settles there with most of us arriving and the critical first tasks out of the way, there won’t be any posts, not even short ones, from me coming out from PIG. Again, it is just the nature of the work.

Pine Island Glacier 2011: Acceleration!

January 4th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

McMurdo Station (Antarctica), 28 December — I can’t remember being able to write two good-news messages in a row this entire trip, so I hardly know how to react. On the heels of the successful Twin Otter recce, yesterday’s Herc flight made it to PIG Main Camp. It was scheduled to depart later in the morning to avoid possible fog. As it turned out, there was no fog, but then I had to worry that some other issue would confound the attempt. Taking a pessimistic view seems to be working wonders, because the flight took off early, successfully delivered cargo and camp staff to PIG, and was able to return to McMurdo without even having to refuel. It’s enough to make a scientist superstitious.

The weather continues to hold. That big old high pressure over the middle of West Antarctica is doing a great job and is expected to stay in place through the beginning of the weekend. I spoke with the Guard planner and he said that not only was PIG on their schedule every day this week, but because this weekend is another two-day holiday, they are thinking seriously of scheduling two flights to PIG on Friday. That would be #’s 5 and 6 (assuming success today and tomorrow). And if that wasn’t enough, they are likely going to be raising the ACL (allowed cargo load) so that yet more people and stuff can get out there.

Helos and Otters are in the offing, as well. The first of the helicopters will be “taken down” this evening. This means they will start to disassemble it (blades, rotor, skids and half the transmission come off), so it can squeeze into the Herc cargo bay. It might be ready for a Friday flight to PIG. The second helo would be a day behind. Meanwhile, Otter schedules are being reviewed so NSF can decide what Otter could come to PIG and how long it could stay.

All these developments have led to a whole new series of talks with various players here that have taken on a noticeably different tone. The cargo sequencer is telling us that we should be ready to fly out to PIG as early as Friday. After so many delays and the increasingly dark cloud that had grown over the project, the sudden change is like being hit with a bracing bucket of cold water. Suddenly it is time to start moving again!

The rest of this week will either see us break the back of the delays, or it will likely end the project for this season. Spirits are extremely high.

SEAT: Satellite Era Accumulation Traverse: A Happy New Year and A Job Well Done

January 4th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Lora Koenig

Greenbelt (MD, US), 3 January — On December 28 in Antarctica (which corresponds to Dec. 27 back here in the States), the team completed the traverse and arrived back at Byrd Camp with a warm welcome from the camp residents. In 18 days they had traveled 500 kilometers (310 miles), drilled eight ice cores, dug six 2-meter (6.56-ft) snow pits and set up and broken down six camps sites. And, I am guessing here, but I am sure they heaved over 20,000 shovels of snow and lifted over two tons per person while moving the science equipment, food and gear around. Ludo shoveled the most, digging the snowpits, and Randy lifted the most, hauling the ice core drill up and down while pulling each ice core to the surface. Most importantly, the team completed all planned science activities and returned safely.

The team arrived Byrd Camp at 10 AM and immediately started packing their gear in order to catch a flight out the next day. Yes, more lifting. It was going to be a very quick turnaround but the rule in Antarctica is, if a plane is on the ground, get on it! The team, along with the camp staff, had the pallet of gear built by the evening and got to enjoy a big meal from the Byrd Camp chefs. They found out early on the 29th that they would not be getting a plane that day there had been a medical emergency somewhere else in Antarctica and the plane had been diverted there to help. No one is ever frustrated in situations like these; everyone just hopes for the best for whoever was in the incident and waits patiently for the next plane.

The next plane to McMurdo was scheduled for Jan. 2, 2012 (New Year’s Day in the States). This gave the team plenty of time to rest their arms and backs and recover from all their hard work, and gave the weather a chance to allow the Twin Otter at Byrd to retrieve the cached ice cores and empty fuel barrels at the camp site. The cores were collected and taken to WAIS Divide Camp, where they will stay in a freezer (a giant dug-out snow cave) until mid-January, when they will fly to McMurdo on a cold-deck LC-130 flight (a flight with the heater turned off). Once in McMurdo, the ice cores will wait in a freezer until the resupply ship reaches the station in February.  Then they will be loaded into the ship’s freezer and sailed to Port Hueneme, California. At this point, they will be put in a freezer truck and driven to the lab in Provo, Utah, at Bringham Young University. The ice cores have a long journey ahead!

The team rang in 2012 at Byrd Camp, which only about 35 other people can claim they did, and on Jan. 2 they left for McMurdo, arriving very late that same day. I talked with the team briefly on the phone when they were in McMurdo, but they were very busy. There was a flight out at 2 AM on Jan. 4 that they were scheduled to leave on. They were all busy cleaning and returning gear, packing and shipping the science equipment back to the States and getting ready to leave Antarctica for Christchurch, New Zealand. I expect to hear if the team has arrived in Christchurch later today or tomorrow. If all is on schedule, the team is just leaving Antarctica and flying over the Ross Sea. Christchurch has been experiencing a swarm of earthquakes over the past few days but there has been no damage that would delay the team’s return.  Once the team is settled in a location with good internet connectivity we will start posting their blog posts and images from the traverse, so stay tuned!

Pine Island Glacier 2011: Mounting Problems

December 22nd, 2011 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

McMurdo (Antarctica), 14 December (Warning: this entry is not for the weak of heart.) Woe is me. A logistics scourge seems to have befallen our project. The past two days have been filled with nothing but bad news. The traverse from Byrd to PIG not only has continued to encounter soft snow, but the transmission on one tractor has failed, and a hydraulic line on another one has a leak that has stopped it literally in its tracks. Much of the cargo being hauled by the tractors is loaded on sheets of very slippery, but strong, plastic. Well, maybe not so strong, after all: This is the second season these sheets have been used and they are starting to crack and break, forcing the traverse party to stop, jigger the load around and then start up again. All this leaves me with the mental image of bits of the traverse littering the trail from Byrd to PIG. Still, the traverse people press onward, with fewer vehicles and less cargo. Their estimate is to arrive at PIG on Friday, but unless they cover more than the 20 miles they’ve completed each of the past two days, it will take yet longer.

The flying side is not going much better. Bad weather continues to plague both of the possible refueling stops so the put-in flight has been cancelled every morning. The weather is forecast to improve at those sites, both of them in the interior of West Antarctica, but (you guessed it) weather at PIG is deteriorating now. We in the field party marooned in McMurdo test our mental mettle by checking a couple of web sites that allow us to view the weather forecasts for the key stations involved in this effort, as well as David Holland’s web cam, which remains our lone virtual presence at PIG. It hurts to see sunny skies there and not be able to fly a plane there.

If this was a football game, the cargo managers would receive a penalty for “piling on”. Yesterday we had a meeting where we heard that our cargo was not the 9,000 pounds that we had planned, but rather 15,000 pounds, necessitating an additional flight to PIG (#9, if you are keeping count). We were only slightly surprised, because I saw this coming. In fact, I was the one who asked for the meeting so we could address any problem early. As I explained in my previous post, we’ve had to add a number of items to our cargo line due to less being taken by the traverse. Also, our colleague Sridhar Anandakrishnan was sent to his early season work site without the skidoos he was supposed to use there, so we have to bring them to PIG via another route. I felt it was time to push back on the size and design of the PIG Main Camp. I said we would lower the priority of some limited parts of our project, so they could arrive on this later flight, but I couldn’t shed all of the 6,000-pound extra cargo. I insisted on some sacrifices from the Main Camp. The head of construction there offered to consider downsizing some of the plumbing (!) and electrical components of the camp. Most others didn’t offer much. If the Herc pilots like the runway when they get to PIG, they might increase the allowed cargo limit (ACL) of subsequent flights, so this problem might go away, but this strikes me as wishful thinking. Nevertheless, I’ll be meeting with the head of the LC-130 squadron to discuss the benefits of even a 500-pound increase of the ACL. Exploring every possible way of getting us to PIG sooner is what my job here has become.

LC-130 Modified "Herc"

In that vein, I’ve come up with yet another strategy to recover some lost time. It involves having a Twin Otter airplane attempt a landing at our intended drill camp location on the ice shelf. This is a bit of déjà vu because three years ago I landed on the ice shelf in a Twin Otter only to be told the surface was too hard and rough for repeated landings. Some super high-resolution satellite imagery suggests to us the result might be different at this new site, so I want to try it again.

Twin Otter

AStar helicopter

I’ve had to write to my program manager back in DC to ask that he supports this request. I made the case that, if successful, we could get the drill camp up and running before helos arrive and are operational at PIG Main Camp. We still have work to do that only the helicopters can support, but we are feeling the increased time pressure of time and splitting the support load would definitely help. It could also eliminate the need for any helicopters next season if we can complete the helo-only work this year and the drilling can be supported by Twin Otters. I delivered my sales pitch to the Twin Otter pilots after lunch today, and I’ll hear from NSF back in DC tomorrow.

On the bright side, I have plenty to restore a balanced perspective. Today is the 100th anniversary of Roald Amundsen’s arrival at the South Pole. As everyone surely knows, Robert Falcon Scott and his field party reached the same spot a month later, but perished on the return journey. I am not about to set out to ski/man haul our cargo to PIG, nor I expect to suffer the extraordinary hardships of either Scott or Amundsen. Antarctic science nowadays is usually hard, often frustrating, but it is rarely life threatening. I’ll take that as some much needed good news.

Notes from the Field