I didn’t get much sleep last night…in anticipation of this morning’s C-17 cargo plane flight to Antarctica. The 6:30 check-in was better than I had hoped for. On previous trips to the ice I’ve had wake-up calls at 3:00 am. After reporting to the CDC, I got dressed in my ECW gear, did my final re-packing, and transferred my fragile electronic gear to the hand-carry orange duffle. The massive pile of luggage was wheeled into a small terminal for check-in.
I got my plastic boarding card, had my checked luggage weighed and sent off to be put on a cargo pallet, and settled in for about a 20-minute wait. It was great to catch up with Dave Monk, our WISSARD videographer. He was sharing information on a filming project he’s been doing in India…which sounded very cool. I hope to learn a lot about filming from Dave, since he leaves for home before Christmas and I will be on the ice much longer.
The group of about 36 passengers watched a video about what to expect on today’s flight and once we arrive in McMurdo. One thing I want to remind you: we are on a journey that will be a very different experience, in both environmental and social ways. Living and working in such an extreme environment presents unique opportunities, but challenges as well. This is true of not only the weather and work conditions, but social situations as well. We’re more isolated from our families and friends and making new friends is pretty important. I’ve already met some great people, and I hope to see them around McMurdo in the coming weeks.
Security screening is much the same as at a regular airport, only we don’t have to take off the huge bunny boots! Soon we were on a bus, bound for the C-17 cargo plane waiting at the airport across the road. I stopped to take a few photos, then boarded the cargo plane. As we boarded we were handed our sack lunch, a bottle of water, and ear plugs!
Once inside, I found myself a seat next to two women I’d met while getting my ECW gear. Sophie is a doctoral student from New Zealand, studying at UC Santa Barbara. Natalie is a firefighter and hopes to winter over at McMurdo Station. On the other side of me was Jay, a flight medic in the Air Force. He’s trained as an EMT (emergency medical technician) and paramedic. His job is to accompany passengers being evacuated from Antarctica on their way back to New Zealand. Stationed in Okinawa, Japan, he applied for this special duty assignment and was one of two selected to spend this “summer” in Antarctica.
Today’s flight was packed with cargo…right down the middle of the aircraft and totally filling up the back portion of the plane. We had a scientific laboratory in a container, huge cargo pallets with crates and boxes stacked high—wrapped in plastic and secured with webbed restraints. There was even a propeller for an LC-130 Hercules airpmane, probably being sent down to replace one that’s broken. Who knows what’s inside all of the containers onboard…but I’m sure there is plenty of science equipment, mail, fresh food, and supplies! What a job it is to get everything back and forth from the icy continent.
Gear was stowed under our metal seats along the sides of the aircraft, and we used our big red parkas as padding for the seat. This flight is not designed with passenger comfort in mind! The loadmaster of the flight gave us our safety briefing and another person in the Air Force flight crew demonstrated the life vest, oxygen mask, etc. just like a flight attendant would do on a commercial airline. Many differences on this plane though…it is incredible with wires and pipes and cables everywhere! It’s cool to see the “guts” of the C-17.
As the engines started and ramped up in intensity, I felt a jolt of nervous excitement. Since we are sitting sideways, it’s a strange feeling when the plane takes off. In addition, we have no windows to look out of, so you lose all sense of what’s really happening. I recorded the sound of our take-off and hope that I can upload that on my blog site.
As the C-17 climbed in altitude, water cascaded off the top of one of the nearby pallets. It’s probably left over from last night’s rain in Christchurch. Chains securing the scientific laboratory rattled against the container, and were tightened by a crew member, once it was safe to be out of our seats.
Our support today on this flight comes from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, in Washington State. These are seasoned pilots and crew members, and I do feel very safe onboard. Matter of fact, I’m typing some of this blog entry while on board the plane. I’ve got to make good use of the time on this 5-hour flight.
The “in-flight meal” (our sack lunch) was substantial, and consisted of the following: 2 sandwiches, an apple, shortbread cookies, two small bags of potato chips, a muffin, something called Oaty Slices (like a breakfast bar), muffin bakes (small muffins), and a candy bar. We certainly won’t starve on this flight.
Throughout the flight people were sleeping, reading, working on computers, talking (a noisy plane, but still doable), snacking, and just hanging out. I spent time interviewing a few of the military personnel, which was really interesting. Here are a few cool facts about the C-17 cargo plane we were on:
- The Loadmasters are the people who do just about everything but fly the plane. They load the cargo onto the C-17 and off-load the cargo once we land in Antarctica. They give the flight briefings, make sure cargo is secured while we are in flight, and take care of passengers on board.
- Our plane had 4 pilots, who are also active-duty Air Force. Their combined total of hours flying C-17’s was equal to approximately 8,600 hours. No wonder we all felt safe and secure on this aircraft. That’s heaps of flying experience. They are single-rated for flying C17’s which means they are only certified to fly one type of aircraft at a time.
- There are also two maintenance people on board the aircraft.
- C17’s can have over 200,000 pounds of fuel, which lasts for a round trip to/from Antarctica. That means this plane could almost fly half way around the world without stopping for fuel. They burn about 100,000 gallons of fuel to get to Antarctica, and about 80,000 to get back to Christchurch, New Zealand.
- The maximum weight of the cargo and people (payload) on the plane is about 170,900 pounds. TOTAL maximum take-of weight of this plane cannot exceed 585,000 pounds. Wow!
- The original cost of the C17 was 202.3 million dollars. It has the same type of Pratt Whitney engines that a 757 airplane has, only the 757 has two engines and the C17 has four engines.
- The C17 is 174 feet long and has a wingspan of about 170 feet. The height of the C17 is 55 feet and the weight of the aircraft when empty is 282,500 pounds.
One of the most exciting things about today’s flight was being able to get up into the cockpit of the plane, on the flight deck. I spent about a half hour with the pilots and navigator, and found out a lot about our course and this aircraft. As we approached the continent of Antarctica, I got a birds-eye view from the cockpit.
What a thrill to see the coast and the Admiralty and Victory Mountains near the coast. We flew over the Pennell Coast near Cape Adare and Cape Hallett, and back out to the Ross Sea. As we headed toward Mt. Erebus, I could see the sea ice breaking up down below. Thank you to the pilots and loadmasters on today’s flight, who taught me a lot and allowed me to see Antarctica from a whole new perspective!
Our landing on the ice runway (not and ICY runway, but a runway of GLACIAL ICE and SNOW) was very smooth. It’s such a strange sensation to land without seeing what’s happening. The plane coasted and moved along the ice runway for about 10 minutes before we came to a stop. When the back ramp was lowered to off-load cargo, light streamed into the C-17 as well as icy cold air. Luckily we had all geared up in our ECW clothing for the landing.
The stairs were lowered and passengers disembarked from the plane. WOW! It was so bright and beautiful, as I knew it would be from past experiences. There’s nothing quite like landing here though, and seeing so much white everywhere! Mt. Erebus was in clear view, looking as majestic as I remembered. We all stopped for photos near the plane, and quickly boarded a huge vehicle known as “Ivan the Terra Bus.”
Ivan has a top speed of 25 miles per hour, so it was an hour-long drive to McMurdo Station. No worries, it gave me time to take in the Antarctic environment and get my bearings geographically. Familiar places came into view including one of my favorite places…Scott Base. It’s the New Zealand base near McMurdo Station.
When I arrived in McMurdo, I went straight to the National Science Foundation (NSF) Chalet for our arrival briefing. Keys to dorm rooms were distributed and off I went to find my building/room. I had to pick up linens to make my bed and after dinner I picked up my luggage and dropped it off in the room. I’ll tell you more about my room and the town later. Time to sign off for now.