Science takes off
Writer explores connection between aviation and polar research
Posted February 11, 2011
“It’s so big!” somebody ahead of me said. Feeling like an astronaut in my red parka and white boots, I followed the others out of the U.S. C-17 military plane and onto the snow of Pegasus Ice Runway . We were here. But what a “here” it was.
Whoever ahead of me had said it’s big was sure right — the view all around us was big ... big and white and magnificent. We were standing on top of five feet of tamped snow on top of 150 feet of glacial ice on top of a few hundred more feet of the Ross Sea.
As a visiting author sponsored by the National Science Foundation’s Artists and Writers Program , I struggled to take it all in. My book will explore the relationship between aviation and science, and so for me, my first flight was just another working day. I tried to write notes, grab photographs, and not trip over my boots, all at the same time.
Aviation in Antarctica started on Feb. 4, 1902, when Robert Falcon Scott went up in a tethered hydrogen-filled balloon off the Ross Ice Shelf . Soon planes replaced balloons as the tool of choice, and the First World War helped develop planes that could go farther and carry heavier loads.
Once Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic solo, more distant goals were attempted, and the world began to look south. Who would be the first to fly over the South Pole?
On Nov. 28, 1929, an answer was provided by an audacious team led by Richard Byrd. They used a Ford Trimotor, flying nonstop on the outbound leg but stopping to refuel from a cache on the return leg. There is a reason so many camps and mountains are named after him; Adm. Byrd returned to Antarctica on four other expeditions, including Operation Deep Freeze in 1956-1957.
Reading his book “Alone” in the public library when I was 10 was one of the main reasons I had wanted to come to Antarctica.
It was only later, reviewing technical papers on geology or learning about ground-penetrating radar, that I realized how much research airplanes facilitate. But was I being mistaken? Is there really a strong relationship between flying and doing science?
“Oh, it’s simple,” Ian Dalziel told me, thinking about his work with GPS teams on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet for a project called POLENET . “No airplanes means no science.” The first person to land at the South Pole in a Twin Otter, Dalziel remembers when things were more often “a wing and a prayer.”
“It’s so much better organized these days. Even the safety rules have safety rules.”
Just to pick one region as an example, in the McMurdo Dry Valleys , helicopter support is essential. With a complex schedule worked out the night before, each day helicopters ferry loads, break down camps, collect samples, and move science teams from one research site to another. At the head of the season, they help put all the supplies and equipment in place, and as the season ends, they have to take it all out again.
What fascinated me was the way the infrastructure worked. Some buildings date from the first Navy days. At Marble Point, helicopters stop to refuel, and when they get the chance, the pilots can top off, too.
“We do what we can to help — if it’s only a cup of coffee and a place for them to grab a sandwich,” says Marble Point manager Bodie Davies. “Some days it’s busy as Heathrow here, with loads coming and going all day long.”
Marble Point has a crew of just three: Bodie the manager, Karen the cook, and on a two-week rotation, a fuel technician, who was Tonya when I was there. Everybody helps with all of the jobs — including putting up with me. An unexpected change in weather kept me there four days. We could have had a barbecue, if only the wind would have let up.1 2 Next