Helicopters Supporting Science

Helicopters Supporting Science


 The sound of helicopters is a familiar one around McMurdo Station.  When I first arrived it seemed a bit unnatural to hear them so close all the time, but I’ve grown accustomed to the sound of helos taking off and landing at all times of the day or night here in Mactown.  Helicopters play an important role in supporting science that takes place in Antarctica.  They provide a way for scientists to get into remote field locations to do their research.  Helicopters also transport much of the special cargo and equipment needed for that science research to take place.

Here is a photo of  Kiwi (New Zealand) Air Force helicopter delivering cargo for the Cape Roberts Project back in the 1990’s.  The picture illustrates how a helicopter can use cables to carry cargo underneath of them.

CRP Helo

A company called PHI, Inc. from Lafayette, Louisiana has been responsible for the helicopter operations in McMurdo since 1996.  With eight pilots, 7-8 mechanics, heli-tech’s (who load and unload the cargo), scheduling and dispatching, the helo hangar is a pretty busy place.  A few of the industries PHI, Inc. supports are the petroleum industry, emergency rescue operations, and science support in Antarctica. They not only fly internationally in Antarctica, but also in Africa.  The company co-exists with the New Zealand helicopter pilots and they also take the Italians to their base at Terra Nova Bay.

 At times aircraft are taken back to the United States to be refurbished.  When repairs or painting are completed the helicopters are brought back at the beginning of the season.  The helicopters are transported down here by cargo plane.  They take the rotors off for transport.  

Jack Hawkins, a senior pilot with 39 years of experience, talked with me about flying helicopters in Antarctica.  He told us that the total number of flight hours for all of the pilots here adds up to over 50,000 hours of flight time, and 100 years of flying helicopters.  That’s incredible!  Some of the pilots have been flying in Antarctica since the original contract seventeen years ago.  Many of the pilots have many years of Antarctic experience.  All of them have  years of experience with flying in general.  Each pilot flies between 300-400 hours per season.  Jack mentioned that they rotate the pilots through the aircraft, meaning each pilot doesn’t just fly a specific helicopter.  All of the pilots also have full-time jobs back home, and some have military training.  Jack spent four years in the U.S. Army, and had experience flying helicopters in Vietnam.


Each morning the pilots run up (start up) their aircraft to see if there are any maintenance issues.  Their days are long…sometimes coming back between 5:00 to 7:00 PM at night.   They fly everywhere from the Dry Valleys to the top of Mt. Erebus, and also do a lot of work on the ice shelf.  There is a lot of activity in Taylor Valley (in the Dry Valleys) and around Lake Hoare.  Jack’s favorite places to fly are in the Dry Valleys.,particularly Beacon Valley. 

Susie is the coordinator for the people, loads, and helicopters.  Her job each day is to match all of that up and figure out who is going where, and what needs to be carried in or from the bottom of the helicopters.  She says her pick for a favorite flight would be Mt. Erebus.

Planning out a helicopter flight takes careful precision.  Pilots look at the temperature and altitude to plan the loads they will take.  The A-Star helo can carry 1,900 pounds total….passengers, fuel, and cargo.  It can carry a sling load hanging down below.  The Bell 212 helo can carry 3,600 pounds.  Remember, that’s fuel, people, their ECW gear, and payload (cargo).  Each and every piece of cargo and passenger is weighed before the helicopter is loaded.  Weight is balanced inside the helo and things are readjusted to balance the load if necessary.  The heli-tech’s work with both preparing the passengers and organizing or loading cargo.  There are five PHI helicopters and one Kiwi helicopter in McMurdo.

 These wagons organizing the cargo and hauling it out to the helicopters.


This is the space for passengers and cargo in the Bell 212.  People sit facing one another behind the pilot and the passenger seat in front.


When flying, pilots must check in every 30 minutes with McMurdo Operations (Mac Ops) communication center.  If they do not report in, a search and rescue operation is launched.  They must notify Mac Ops if they will be returning later than scheduled.  No exceptions!  This is for everyone’s protection.  If there was an emergency, valuable time for search and rescue would be wasted if there was more time between check-ins.  And, in case there is an emergency in the field, helos can be diverted in the field to help.

Helicopter operations are vital to support of polar science.

USAP seal

There are certain weather limitations for various locations, for example if a helo is flying into the Dry Valleys, there must be no less than a 500 foot ceiling (cloud cover) with three miles minimum visibility.  For flights across the sea ice there’s a 1,000 foot ceiling and minimum of three miles visibility.  On the Polar Plateau, the ceiling is 1,500 feet and visibility requirement of five miles.   They have duel GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) systems on board and everything they do is relative to true north. 

Incredible scenery and remote locations that many people can only dream of are part of the pilots’ job each day.  Jack says that “No doubt that we have the best job on station.”  I think I’d have to agree.  Thanks to PHI for many years of service in Antarctica…pilots, mechanics, and everyone else involved in this important part of science operations.  Everyone in McMurdo appreciates their expertise and focus on safely supporting the scientific endeavors and operations in the field.

Enjoy this video clip of a helicopter taking off from McMurdo, and have a super day!

2 responses to “Helicopters Supporting Science

  1. What a neat blog entry. It’s amazing to me that those guys will actually go out there with only five hundred foot ceilings. That is not very high at all. Things can go bad in a hurry when the white snow blends into the white clouds such that there is no horizon. I would imagine that those limits are in place, but rarely needed. I know my personal minimums would be a lot higher than that. Jackson also loved the video and watched until I cut him off.

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