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Riding the line

Fuels department at McMurdo Station keeps USAP running

There’s not much to distinguish the Fuels Department from the other 1960s-era, corrugated metal buildings scattered across McMurdo Station. Except the smell.

The gas station odor punches one in the nose on entering the barn-like structure. Nearly 20 people are squeezed into a small suite of offices — the fuels operators, better known as fuelies.

Most are outfitted in worn and tan Carhartt jackets or jeans, patched puffy jackets, Swiss-cheesed fleeces. Heavily duct-tapped gloves stick out of pockets as the assembled fuelies wait for the morning meeting to begin.

Today is Transfer Day. About 100,000 gallons of fuel will leave McMurdo and snake through 14 miles of soft hose laid across an ice shelf to the station’s main airfield known as Pegasus.

“Anything that runs on fuel — we move it,” says Fuels supervisor Alex Morris, a ginger-haired and bearded man who has worked in the department for about a dozen years, the last five as the U.S. Antarctic Program’s go-to guy on everything fuel-related.

“We’re sort of the unsexy side of the program, but nobody misses fuel until it’s not there. There’s a lot of magic that has to happen in order to get fuel where it needs to be,” says Morris, whose philosophical bent comes legitimately from a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.

The quick-witted head fuelie is all business on this particular morning. Transferring fuel to the airfield is the most intense of the department’s weekly duties. A faulty connection or busted hose could turn into an environmental disaster.

“This job has a lot of responsibility. If something goes wrong here, they read about it in the newspapers back home,” drawls Phil Jacobsen, a second-year fuelie, a fraying baseball cap on his head, the bill low across his forehead.

This is later at the so-called Halfway House, a secondary pumping station located midway between McMurdo and Pegasus Airfield.

Jacobsen likens the Halfway House to an additional train engine that helps push the fuel the remaining seven miles to the airfield. Two fuelies — Laurel Nelson and Diana Wendt — are riding snowmobiles along all 14 miles of hose, making frequent stops at each connection to ensure there are no problems.

“Pegasus is kind of our big show,” says Nelson, a fresh-faced, first-year fuelie who was working for the Forest Service before trading pine-scented woods for gas fumes and frost nip.

It’s a tough job to be a fuelie. Most of their time is spent outdoors. The sun may be shining 24 hours a day in the summer, but it’s still Antarctica. Early and late season work usually means wind chills well below zero. The main job, of course, is handling fuel throughout the day. One foot of hose filled with gas weighs about nine pounds.

“Basically, we work hard and we play hard,” Morris says. “I try to make it fun, because a lot of what we do is miserable.”

One could imagine a job ad for the Fuels Department not dissimilar to the one Sir Ernest Shackleton ran for his famous Endurance expedition. Just substitute a few words: “Men and women wanted for hazardous duty. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of completely hard work, constant exposure to fuel and physical labor. Honor and recognition among your peers in case of success.”

“It sounds really fun to be on a snow machine every day, but it gets really tiresome,” Morris continues. “It’s a very physically demanding job. I think people enjoy the outdoor aspect of it — the physical challenge, as well as the mental challenge. You have to be on.”

Indeed, there’s usually no dearth of candidates for the 20-odd fuelie jobs. There are perks: Many get an opportunity to work at field camps or take a rotation at the South Pole Station offloading fuel from turbo-propped military aircraft. A stint at the Marble Point helicopter fueling station across McMurdo Sound at the foot of the Dry Valleys is also a coveted assignment.

The close-knit department even embraces the fossil fuel stink. The fuelie motto: “You can smell us coming.”

Ed Cleary, a stout, bald-headed fellow with a strongman mustache, is a fourth-year fuelie. He had known about the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) since the late 1990s while attending The Ohio State University, which has a prominent polar research program. He finally succeeded in getting a job in 2009-10 when the Fuels Department needed extra hands to roll out all that hose to Pegasus Airfield.

“It’s just outside the box. You’re not in a cubicle. I’ve done the cubicle thing,” Cleary says of why he returns each year to the Ice and Fuels in particular.

Morris estimates that about two million gallons of fuel passes through those 14 miles through the course of a summer, which runs from about October to February, when it’s time to clear the lines and roll up the hose for the winter. The operation is called pigging. It’s the most dangerous job of the season, according to Morris.

Pigging sounds simple enough. A foam rubber bullet is shot through the hose to push the fuel seven miles in each direction into awaiting tanks. But there’s a lot of pressure being exerted through the lines.

“If it goes bad, it can go bad in a hurry,” Morris notes. “It would be the effect of a bomb going off.”

The other big show for Morris and his fuelies also happens toward the end of the summer season when a fuel tanker — “No Smoking” emblazoned in giant red letters on the bridge — arrives with five millions gallons or so of petrol. It can take upwards of three days of around-the-clock operations to unload the ship. Progress is marked as the vessel’s hull rises out of the water as its storage tanks are emptied.

The department handles three types of fuel — AN8, JP5 and mogas, for motor gasoline. The last would be the most familiar to the common consumer, a mid-grade unleaded motor fuel with certain additives that the military requires.

AN8 is a special fuel blend unique to the Antarctic and Arctic. It has a lower flash point of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, which also lowers the gelling point when extreme cold temperatures can cause wax crystals to start forming in the fuel. AN8 will remain liquid until about minus 72 degrees, according to Morris.

“The big reason for this is the South Pole and the field camps that will see temperatures colder than that,” he says.

The New York Air National Guard’s LC-130s are the heaviest users of fuel on the continent. One of their primary missions is to ferry gas to the bottom of the world. By the time it reaches the South Pole Station, a gallon of fuel carries a $30 price tag. No wonder Polies are allotted only two two-minute showers per week to conserve costs.

JP5 is also a special fuel blend. It is used by the U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers.

This year, with construction of a new two-million-gallon tank, McMurdo Station has the capacity to store about 13 million gallons of fuel. That’s enough gas to keep the USAP going for two years.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), which manages the program, wants the additional fuel on hand in case it can’t resupply the station during a summer season because of sea ice conditions or other challenges that seem to visit McMurdo in any given year.

While the job for the Fuels Department remains the same from summer to summer — and winter to winter — there are no typical years.

“This will be the busiest year I’ve seen for fuels — and I thought last year was the busiest year,” Morris muses.

“I absolutely love my job,” he adds. “It comes with aggravation and all that, but I couldn’t really see myself doing anything else. I enjoy the people. I enjoy the challenges. And I keep learning new stuff every year.”

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Division of Polar Programs