Page 2/2 - Posted February 11, 2011
Planes and helicopters keep USAP moving along
When I talked to scientists, all praised the helicopter pilots. But when I spoke to the pilots, their praise was for the ground crews. Once the aircraft come back to McMurdo Station for the night, then the mechanics open their toolboxes, click on the shop lights, and do the unseen yet highly essential work of keeping these birds tuned up and flying.
Part of the current success record is meticulous maintenance, and Texas Dave and his crew make sure the helicopters are kept in top condition, even if it means staying a few extra hours past the end of their shift. Hanging out with them, with the classic rock playing and the banter flowing, reminded me of the best aspects of a hometown filling station. On my blog, when I wrote about their work, I titled it “an all-American garage.”
In contrast to the helicopters at Marble Point, when the ski-equipped LC-130 planes land somewhere on the Ice, they often bring fuel rather than needing to take it. Called Hercs, these planes are run by the New York Air National Guard . This is a very successful airframe, and the plane is broadly known as being able to go anywhere and carry anything.
A base camp called WAIS (West Antarctic Ice Sheet) Divide provides support for ice-core projects. The Hercs running supplies and personnel often can land with extra fuel, which is offloaded into the camp to top off existing reserves. The generators and camp vehicles all share a common fuel source, so one plane brings the gas for everything.
Up at CTAM — a camp in the Central Transantarctic Mountains — it’s a similar story. Hercs and helicopters there support paleontologists who are excavating dinosaurs, as well as glaciologists and even meteorite recovery teams. When I was at the South Pole Station , one of the meteorite teams had just come in from the field. Melissa Lane of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson and astronaut Serena Auñón shared stories about their best finds. Safely wrapped against contamination, the specimens were going to stay refrigerated and be flown to McMurdo, and then would be shipped out on the resupply vessel home.
How does this fit in with my own results? Jessie Crain, currently the senior NSF representative at McMurdo, sums it up: “Many of the extraordinary scientific achievements of the U.S. Antarctic Program in the past 50 years would not have been possible without aviation support.”
Pilots agree. David Nelson is Science Support lead at McMurdo and an experienced pilot himself. He’s pragmatic, and notes with sly humor that research in Antarctica “runs on aircraft and fuel; you’d better have plenty [of] both, along with the dedicated crews to keep them running in harsh conditions or you’ll go nowhere — unless you want to go back to sled dogs and ponies.”
Each year the missions are refined. It is never perfect: storms come, schedules collapse, some teams need more support than the spreadsheets hoped for. In classical mythology, “Erebus” was the son of Chaos. It is not surprising then that Helo Cliffs near the summit of Mount Erebus is named for a Coast Guard helicopter that wrecked in 1971.
The remains are still there. It is a grim site (especially when seen out the window of one’s own helicopter) but in this case, all four on board survived.
What will the future bring? Everybody had a different answer — from pilotless drones to hovercraft to new generations of helicopters with twice or even four times the current range. My favorite answer remembered the Jetsons — “We all need personal jet-packs!”
Until then I must say I am awed by how well things run. Despite dinged props, four-day storms and that last extra box of meteorites, everything and everybody ends up getting where she or he or it is supposed to be.
What is the future of aviation in Antarctica? I predict more of the same: brilliant flying, adroit logistics, and the untold stories of dozens and dozens of daily heroes. Science in Antarctica will not be giving up its wings any time soon.Back 1 2