Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Flying to the Ice

Antarctica Blog

As part of the National Science Foundation’s “Artists and Writers” program, Language Arts instructor Charles Hood has been given a grant to go to Antarctica to interview pilots and to conduct research on the ways that aviation supports science. He will be sending back reports from the field every few days during January 2011. Updates will appear here.

1. Flying to the Ice

To write about a book about aviation has required a lot of flying on my part, starting with Los Angeles to Aukland, New Zealand on a Qantas Flight on New Year’s Eve, then Aukland to Christchurch on a small airline, JetStar. In Christchurch I was issued polar gear and manifested for my deployment to the ice. Forty-two scientists, American military service members, and technical support staff lined up for a very special destination—Antarctica.

Our airliner was a C-17 cargo plane flown by a U.S. Air Force unit based in Washington state; their usual operations take them to Afghanistan and the Middle East, but part of the year they support the National Science Foundation. This particular aircraft has had a lot of different cargo. It has delivered everything from astronomy telescopes to helicopters, and it even once ferried Shamu the whale. It has flown many combat missions, as well.

After an all-night flight, we landed on a runway built directly onto sea ice. It is summer in Antarctica and even though it was 4 a.m., the sun was blazing in the sky. The temperature was ten degrees above zero.

Some of the people on my flight were going to change aircraft and be taken by the Air National Guard to the South Pole. Some were catching helicopters to remote field camps. For me and most of the others, our initial destination was McMurdo, a cross between a Cal-Trans maintenance yard and a small college campus, and the logistical center of U.S. science operations in Antarctica. It will be my home for the next month.

My office will be inside one of the McMurdo science labs. A southern elephant seal’s skull and a stuffed penguin face my desk. I will talk about life in the polar extremes and what kinds of science happen here in a later post. Time now to unpack my bags and find the chow hall—I could really go for a good cup of coffee!

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