Slightly more drama than we really needed

Date: Fri, 10 Nov 2000

So there we are with a load of very toasty winterovers who have been scheduled to leave for a full week, and a handful of people who were supposed to be short-term visitors from McMurdo. New folks are learning what Antarctic travel is all about, as planes are scheduled every day, delayed and delayed due to weather, and finally cancelled. Every day is "maybe tomorrow." One day the pax (passenger) flight was pushed back to a 10pm offdeck before it was cancelled; another day, a plane took off, got within 100 miles, circled around hoping for better visibility, ran low on fuel and went home again. Every time this happens the scheduled passengers have to clean out their rooms and get all dressed up in their ECW ready to go. It's mental and emotional effort more than physical. Every night people sit around in the galley saying goodbye....again.

This much is normal enough, if a drag. Where it got entertaining was Thursday night. For starters, we had a strong solar flare that knocked out all our HF radio communication with McMurdo. While we had a satellite connection we got a flight schedule, but then the satellite "set" so we didn't know what the planes were really doing until we heard from them on VHF, only 35 minutes out. The pax plane came in, we all said goodbye out on the flight deck, outgoing pax loaded up, the plane taxied...and taxied back...and taxied...and taxied back.... The plane taxied 6 times without getting enough speed to take off. They tried moving all their cargo to the back of the plane, they tried moving all the people on top of the cargo in the back of the plane. Eventually they came back, unloaded all the cargo except for pax baggage, and lumbered off the skiway. Phew! We all said a final mental goodbye to our winterover friends.

Half an hour later, the plane radioed back to us that they were having trouble with the front ski hydraulics and were coming back to unload the pax. By this time I was back in Comms and we all gaped at the radio in dismay. Fortunately we had another plane in at that point, and the two planes negotiated a deal to load all the pax on the second plane. Ouchie nevertheless...if you've never been on a LC-130, they are not fun places to spend your evening. They're loud and uncomfortable and they do not have very many windows. Also, our pax included two medevacs: one altitude sickness, one lame leg. Once the first plane got back they transferred people and baggage and swapped some cargo around. One plane took on some fuel and another plane offloaded some. A notable thing about Comms is that we are the link between the airplane crew and the people out on the flight deck (cargo, fuelies) but we're deep in the dome with no view. So the plane gives us messages to relay to the people who are working 20 feet away. A little bit silly but somehow it all works. I was there to back up Jerry, who is quite sharp but brand new and with the way the weather's been he hasn't had the chance to practice flight operations. Welcome to South Pole Comms! This is how it is.

In the meantime we heard from our third plane of the evening, and we had a few tense moments when the third plane was in its final descent as the pax flight was out on the skiway preparing to leave. All we can do in that situation is make sure that the planes are aware of each other. We haven't had a crash here yet but there was a near miss once. Not tonight though, they did their job and we relaxed a bit as the pax got on their way to McMurdo for the third time.

The rest of the evening was fairly straightforward as we got the last two flights taken care of and on their way. We had a moment of comedy when Cargo called us up to ask which pallets went on which flight - they usually tell us that! Not a standard evening. People who have been here 10 or 15 years were agreeing that they've never seen anything quite like it. Once all the flights were outbound Jerry was ok to finish the shift on his own, and I was in bed by 1am.

In any case, our people are in McMurdo now scheduled on the next flight to New Zealand. We're all wishing them smooth travels from now on. They've put in their time.

Hope you're all well,


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