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Notes from the Field

False Start

January 5th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Bob Bindschadler

McMurdo (Antarctica), 31 December — That close. We were that close to leaving McMurdo yesterday; literally, a few feet from the airplane. The day started early, but with great promise. Everything was going so smoothly. Everyone showed up for breakfast dressed for the cold weather, our flight lunches were ready for pick-up, transportation was on time and we packed into the monstrous Delta vehicle (a small compartment atop huge tires, designed to span bumps and holes in the road) for the 50-minute drive to Pegasus, the skiway on the McMurdo ice shelf. The only ones ahead of us were the flight crew, the cargo handlers and a few ice runway work crew. This was the last day before the 2-day New Year weekend. We counted ourselves fortunate to be escaping McMurdo and getting to PIG so we could begin sorting our gear and be ready for Monday’s first move onto the ice shelf.

As we transferred from the bumpy Delta to the softer seats of the passenger transporter (used to take passengers from the rougher road traveled by the Delta onto the snow apron where the airplanes are), the pilot came over to say that there was a maintenance issue with the plane. It seems there are ten radios onboard and while all but one have backups, the one without the backup was the one that didn’t work. Maintenance was investigating. Just to cover themselves, the crew had also begun pre-flight checks on the only other airplane available. Usually a second airplane is not available, but PIG seemed to be the only spot on the continent scheduled to receive a flight that had good weather. It was a luxury and gave me more confidence that we were sure to get away. The race was not against the weather today, rather against time; the length of the mission would be over 11 hours and crews are not allowed to have their “duty day” (which starts when they first check weather reports) extend beyond 14 hours. So although it was still only 7:30 in the morning and the mission was set to launch at 0900, we could only delay two hours. If the mission couldn’t get off by 1100, we weren’t going. We waited in the very Spartan and deserted galley for further word.

Pre-flighting the second aircraft turned out to be a judicious move. The radio technician identified the problem, but the replacement part was in Christchurch. The scramble began to get our five pallets of cargo off the first airplane and on to the second. We were called from the galley back to the transporter and were driven to the second airplane, so we could get on quickly once the plane was ready. We waited, and waited, and waited, mentally assisting each forklift that grabbed a pallet from the first plane and lined up in order to deposit it on the tail ramp of the second aircraft. Done. Now what? We stared out the windows, trying to interpret the comings and goings of the ground crew. I’ve taken countless Herc flights in my many years here and I have yet to understand all that goes on inside these Hercs as the crew prepares them. Too much time gone already as 10 AM came and went. Doubt started to seep into our once-excited conversations. Finally, the pilot (a large piece of Air National Guard beefcake) came out and tossed the heavy survival bags (the big red ones in the picture) through the crew entrance door. I joked that he was going to load us the same way. Our mood returned to a spirited banter and we rapidly made sure that our bags were zipped up and everything was set. We expected to be called to board any moment.

That moment didn’t come, didn’t come and still didn’t come. 10:20 AM stretched to 10:30 and even 10:45. Opinions varied on the likelihood of success. At 10:55 AM, the pilot stepped off the airplane, strode across the few feet of packed snow to our vehicle and knocked on the door. When he addressed us, he didn’t mince words; we weren’t going, the mission was a “maintenance cancel”. He explained that the aircraft has two altimeters and that they are checked to be sure they agree to within 75 feet. These did not. Maintenance personnel had tried to determine why, but time had run out for the crew.

Everyone knew what this meant; we would have to wait until Monday for the next try and bad weather was forecast to move into the PIG area on Sunday. This was a crushing blow to our hopes. As far as our project timelines go, the scrubbed mission only translates into a single day delay if we can work through our cargo at PIG faster. Mentally, it just dials up the pressure yet further. It won’t be a relaxed weekend. We can’t accomplish anything here.

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.


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.

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!

A Christmas Wish Granted

January 3rd, 2012 by Patrick Lynch

By Lora Koenig

Byrd Station (Antarctica), 27 December — Randy had a strange Christmas list this year. He wanted the 50 knot winds to stop. Late on Christmas Day his gift arrived and the storm over West Antarctica broke. The team’s speedy progress was slowed down by the back-to-back storms, but on Christmas Day in the U.S. (December 26th in Antarctica) the team moved from Seat Camp 5 to the final camp, Seat Camp 6. On December 27th in Antarctica they drilled two ice cores to complete drilling for the season. In total they drilled 9 ice cores for a total length of about 180 meters of firn. If the weather holds, which judging by today’s satellite imagery it has, the team is snowmobiling back to Byrd Camp as I am writing this blog. I expect to hear shortly that they have arrived at Byrd. The hard part of the season is complete. Now clean up begins. A flight is scheduled to leave Byrd and go to McMurdo on the 29th and the team will try to get all the gear broken down, palletized and get most of the team members on that flight. A few people may need to stay behind to pick up the ice cores that are still buried in the snow at the camp locations. Keep your fingers crossed for good weather so the planes can get into Byrd and pick up the cached ice cores.