Former hovercraft pilots reflect on unique experiment in transportation 25 years ago
Posted November 1, 2013
Planes and ships, tractors and skis, ponies and sled dogs, and even a hot air balloon: All manner of transportation has been tried and used in the Antarctic. There is even talk of testing a hybrid airship in coming years, while robotic tractors are soon to be a reality.
Once upon a time (not so long ago), even hovercraft glided across the ice of Antarctica.
“People could not believe what we had been asked to do,” recalls Sarah Krall, who was one of two hovercraft pilots during that inaugural 1988-89 summer field season.
Krall had been chosen, along with Louise “Lou” Albershardt, to be the first pilots in what would turn out to be a three-year experiment to use air-propelled vehicles to support research out of McMurdo Station .
The idea had been pushed by a man named Mickey Finn, who was an engineering manager for the civilian contractor hired by the National Science Foundation (NSF) , which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program , to handle logistics. Army engineer Steve Dibbern had written a feasibility report in 1987 that supported the concept.
Photo Credit: Jeff Thompson
The hovercraft travels across the ice, with Mount Erebus in the background, during the 1990-91 summer.
The choice of Krall and Albershardt was particularly interesting because women were still making inroads in the USAP 20 years after the first all-female team of scientists deployed to the Ice in 1969.
Neither had any particular expertise in piloting hovercraft, a type of vehicle that uses blowers to produce a large volume of air below the hull that is slightly above atmospheric pressure. The pressure difference produces lift, which causes the hull to float above the running surface.
Krall had just completed her third summer as field mountaineer in 1987-88. Albershardt’s first season was in 1986-87 as a night janitor. Krall did say that both women had extensive outdoor experience, which may have played a role in their selection.
Albershardt, via e-mail, says it was simply a matter of being at the “right place at the right time.”
Both women, along with mechanics and others, went to Philadelphia in 1987 to learn how to pilot the vehicle. Most of the training took place on the Delaware River, including across mud flats – the closest approximation to ice that was available at the time.
“We trained on water, which was very different than driving on ice,” Krall explains at the McMurdo’s administrative building, called the Chalet, where she works as an administrative assistant, the most recent job in a 28-year-long Antarctic career. “We literally had to train ourselves on new techniques down here.”
Built by a company called Frank W. Hake Inc., under a U.S. manufacturing license from Griffon Hovercrafts, a British company, the hovercraft carried the serial number 00001. On the Ice, it was known as Maxine, named after Albershardt’s mother.
Maxine was about 35 feet long, with an aluminum hull and a two-section cabin, as the aft section could be removed to permit more cargo capacity. The maximum payload was about 2,000 pounds; in theory, it could carry about 10 passengers, roughly comparable to the payload of the Bell 212 helicopter in use at the time. It was powered by a six-cylinder Deutz diesel engine, which drove two fans, one for lift and one for forward propulsion.
Maxine’s primary job was to support field science near McMurdo Station, though she was often drafted into ferrying around distinguished visitors, as part of the novelty. However, Krall says the craft was a good workhorse, when it wasn’t down for maintenance, often due to the vehicle’s natural vibration shaking bolts and other parts loose.
Jobs included laying supply depots for a research team that was sledding out to Skeleton Glacier and supporting science divers working on McMurdo Sound. A trip across the Sound to a site called New Harbor was by far the best day of the season, according to Krall.
“We didn’t know if we could make it,” recalls Krall, explaining that the trash ice, ice mixed with water, made maneuvering Maxine extremely difficult. It took nearly two hours to cross a quarter mile of trash ice. They didn’t get back to station until midnight.
“Science can’t always get everything done in those nine hours,” Krall notes of the “typical” workday.
In hindsight, Albershardt says, operating the hovercraft was a tremendous opportunity, despite the difficulties at the time.
Photo Credit: Peter Barrett
Louise “Lou” Albershardt, left, and Sarah Krall unload a drum of fuel off of the hovercraft Maxine.
“Looking back, many of the big challenges don't seem as big 25 years later,” she says, though there were bureaucratic kerfuffles. Both women also say the hovercraft operation itself wasn’t supported uniformly throughout the organization at the time. They had to pilot with insufficient navigation aids and communication gear.
“It didn’t slow us down,” Krall says. “We came down as drivers and left as operators.”
A related craft had actually been used about 15 years earlier.
Air Development Squadron Six (VXE-6), the air support contingent of the U.S. Navy , which ran the logistics in those days before the jobs were handed over to civilian contractors, brought what was called an airboat to McMurdo during the 1974-75 season.
A press release at the time boasted that the 20-foot-long “sleek, orange craft” was powered by a 250- horsepower engine that could reach up to 60 miles per hour. It was initially intended for crew transport between McMurdo and Williams airfield, which is now the site of the Long Duration Balloon facility used by NASA to launch telescopes into low orbits around Antarctica.
The New Zealand Antarctic program also got into the hovercraft business briefly in the 1970s when it tested a four-passenger air-cushion vehicle. The craft didn’t measure up to the conditions, leaving the driver largely exposed to the elements, among other deficiencies.
The so-called airboat used by the Navy was reportedly around for several field seasons, though eventually its use was discontinued and whereabouts unknown. Maxine also only lasted a few seasons before it was put out of service. One story is that it was sold to a tourist operation in New Zealand.
Even today, speaking about Maxine and the days of cruising across Antarctica, makes Krall nostalgic. Both she and Albershardt stuck with the USAP in the succeeding decades.
Krall’s polar adventures have taken her to the top of Mount Erebus and the McMurdo Dry Valleys , among others. Albershardt eventually became a skilled ice driller, extracting ice cores from every corner of the continent.
“I really love it. I’ve had incredible opportunities,” Krall says.
The website www.southpolestation.com contributed to this report.