6 January 2010

Boomerang Flight To Antarctica!

Posted by Dan Satterfield

Dan's pic from the C17 Over Antarctica Wednesday afternoon.

Dan's pic from the C17 Over Antarctica Wednesday afternoon.

I have seen Antarctica, but I am not there tonight. We spent 10 hours on a U.S. Military C17 from Christchurch to McMurdo. Today was our second attempt, after we were canceled at Dawn Tuesday due to bad weather at McMurdo.

Me onboard the C17 en-route to Antarctica

Me onboard the C17 en-route to Antarctica

So at dawn today (Wednesday here in Christchurch) we headed to the airport. After a 30 minute briefing, and packing our luggage into bright orange bags, we headed to the plane. Most of our luggage is loaded onto a pallet. I have two carry-on bags full of still and video cameras. My luggage weight limit is 150 pounds. (I was well within the limit, but it sure doesn’t feel like it when I am lugging it all around!)

For safety reasons we must wear our cold weather gear on-board. Gloves, goggles, and the bright red NSF Polar jackets. I also have on something resembling a ski bib. Footwear are the very heavy “bunny boots”. These boots have an air valve on them and we are told to make sure it is in the open position! They are by far the warmest boots I have ever worn. One pair of special wool socks is all you need.

If the outside of the plane does not convince you that this is not a commercial flight, the inside quickly dispels any remaining doubt! Pallets of food and material are loaded behind our seats. The load-master tells us to pick a seat, they are all just as uncomfortable as the others he announces.

Definitely not a commercial flight. The ride was very loud, and we all wore ear plugs.

Definitely not a commercial flight. The ride was very loud, and we all wore ear plugs.

Just a few porthole windows on the aircraft. This is not surprise, we were briefed well on what to expect. Ann and I choose to sit in the airline type seats in the middle. Many are in jump like seats along the sides. Most are senior scientists, post docs and graduate students. A separate contingent of distinguished visitors is on-board and one of them is an MP from Canada.

Ear plugs are passed out and we are told that it will be very loud and difficult to hear once we take off.

Take off was at 9 am and the 3,000 mile flight to McMurdo base from Christchurch will take us 5 hours. We hear right away that there is concern over the weather at McMurdo. We have enough fuel to fly to McMurdo and back without landing if we have to . This is called a boomerang.

We were again reminded that if the weather goes bad and we do boomerang back to Christchurch, we will not see our bags until we actually make it to Antarctica.

Canadian Chaz Firestone of Brown Uni. is also part of our group.

Canadian Chaz Firestone of Brown Uni. is also part of our group.

Since I’m headed to the Pole tomorrow, I was handed some Diamox tablets by the nurse at Christchurch. (for altitude sickness- the South Pole is nearly 10,000 feet above sea level.)  Side affects are tingling and bad taste in my mouth, and a little drowsiness. I took the first tablet and immediately fell asleep for an hour! I awoke as we approached the Antarctic Circle and we took some snaps around the plane and video out the tiny windows.

Dana, our guide from the NSF comes back and tells us that we are cleared to go to the flight deck in an hour! Ann and I try not to jump up and down and make a fool of ourselves with that news!

Sea Ice near the Antarctic Coast. Dan's pic.The hour passes waiting online for the lavatory. There are 150 people on-board and one toilet to go around. There is always a wait.

No one complains, we are flying to the bottom of the World. Everyone on-board this aircraft understands what a special and unique experience we are experiencing.

As I walk down the aisle, I see Mac Books like mine everywhere. This is only mildly surprising to me, since almost every scientist I know uses a Mac. All three of us in the WHNT weather office use them. Steve Jobs, the head of Apple, could make a really good commercial here!

The time comes for the climb up the ladder to the flight deck.


The mountains of Antarctica are spread out below us with a deep cobalt blue sky above. I tell the pilot that he has the best view from his desk of any person on Earth. He knows it. There are big windows across the entire flight deck and Ann and I shoot video and still pictures.

The professionalism of these servicemen is amazing. I’m not the least bit nervous about the trip. If anyone on earth can get us safely to McMurdo it’s these folks from the 109th air wing of the New York Air National Guard. This is their job, flying scientists in and out of Antarctica. Their most famous trip was the rescue of a medical doctor from the pole in mid winter a few years ago. She had discovered while wintering over at the Pole that she had breast cancer and it was decided she needed immediate treatment.

IMG_8798rrrNo flights land at the Pole in Winter. It’s 90 below and in total darkness with high winds. When asked to do it, they did not hesitate. The doc was evacuated. (You probably know that she did not survive her bout with breast cancer.)

I ask the pilot about the latest weather ob from McMurdo. The news is not good he says. I’m actually secretly hoping we are turned back! Our canceled flight yesterday means we will only get 6 days on the ice. If we are boomeranged today, we will move everything back a day and get the full 7. As an added bonus, I will get to make this flight again!

Ann turned to me when we got back to our seats, and says she feels like the luckiest person in the world to see Antarctica from the flight deck of a C17. I am sure of it. Stunned gratitude fills my heart as I stand by my seat and revel in what I just saw. Believe me when I say that the pictures do not do it justice.

I grabbed a quick interview with the pilot on the HD Video camera, but it was very noisy and the outside was extremely bright while the flight deck was much darker. Horrible conditions for shooting pictures or video. The professional photographers back at the station would spend an hour setting up a shot like that. I have 5 minutes. I hope it will do.

Ed Forgotson of CBS climbed to the flight deck just before us. I wonder how well his video will come out. Better I’m sure! Ed and Josh Landis of CBS are part of our group.

There are 7 of us who were selected out of many applicants. The youngest is Chaz Firestone, a native of Toronto who is finishing a degree at Brown University. Chaz is a real go getter and when he told me he was shocked he made the cut. I told him that I wasn’t. He’s one unique person who is studying neuroscience, while editing the college paper. You will hear of him in the future. No doubt about that. (Being a Canadian he gets bonus points with me too!).

Screen shot 2010-01-06 at 14.35.04My friend Claire Martin, a Meteorologist for the CBC gave me a great “Hockey Day in Canada” pullover and I have worn it all day. Everyone thinks I’m Canadian instead of Chaz! Claire, if you read this – a big thank you! It’s been the perfect top to wear on this long flight off the map of the civilised world.

All of our group is involved in either writing about science or in on air TV work. I do all three and have been involved with the Yale Climate and Media Center in educating TV weather people about climate science.

Ann Posegate my co-traveller spent a year at the Mount Washington Observatory and now works for the Nat. Env. Educ. Foundation in Washington. She also writes for the wildly popular Capital Weather Gang Blog in the Washington Post. You can find info on our trip both here and there and on the NEEF Earth Gauge site. Ann has a Biology background, but she knows what an Asperatus cloud is- so she RATES!

Ann also has a real eye for photography- as you will see over the coming days. She is showing me some of the pictures she took as I write this. They are fabulous. Between us, we should be able to get some fabulous shots.

Robert Hotz of the Wall Street Journal has been reporting science for many years.  He understands the climate issue and knows most of the top scientists working to answer the current questions. Lunch with him and the others yesterday was a real treat. (I told you I’m surrounded by overachievers!)

Back to the flight…

Just as I get into the lavatory and get my gear off (I will leave out the details here) the pilot announces that the weather below in McMurdo is just too bad to land safely.

We are headed back to Christchurch! We’ve been BOOMERANGED.

The flight deck onboard the C17. Dan's picture.Five more hours on the plane. We try again tomorrow. I try to hide my glee. 7 days on the ice and I get to make this flight again! (Maybe my daughter is right- perhaps I really am crazy!)

As I write this we are 3 hours from Christchurch. No hotel room, so once we land we will have to find one. No clothes since  those are in my checked bags. I’ll be wearing everything again tomorrow. I mean EVERYTHING if ya get my meaning! Just remembered that my deodorant is in the checked bag as well. The cameras had the highest priority. Ann may not want to sit beside me tomorrow!

New Zealand is the most incredible country I have visited, so another night there is just fine with me. Christchurch is called the garden city for good reason. It’s the prettiest city I’ve ever been in. I keep telling shop clerks that I will trade my passport or credit card for their accent!

Enjoy the pics of our journey. I know most will never have the opportunity, and I want to share as much as can with you about the experience. We humans intense curiosity about the unknown is so evident as I finish this sitting in my seat.

Scientists from all walks of life and many countries surround me. Years of education have brought them to this. I speak for everyone on this flight from the crew to the senior researchers when I say that it’s all worth it. The cold, the danger, the remoteness of our trip, it’s all related to one human virtue.




Update 8:30am Thursday NZ Time- We are waved off for 24 more hours. The hotel has kindly lent me a comb, but I am off to buy underwear! These clothes are getting a bit rank and I am not even on the ice yet! Moral of all of this is that just getting to Antarctica is not easy (Or cheap – my morning coffee was 4.50NZD. Breakfast was a Snickers at $2.10.)

The view of the Southern Alps, behind Christchurch, from my 6th floor room at the Crown Plaza?