On Cargo Planes and Penguins

Finally! After nearly a month of travelling and managed isolation I can finally say that I am in Antarctica! It’s still kind of hard to believe that I’m actually here. The last week in the New Zealand managed isolation went way faster than the first week. I’ll chalk that one up to being on the downhill side of it. There had been a question of we’d actually fly on our scheduled day, the weather in McMurdo has been on the warmer side (for here) so the ice runway wasn’t able to support a regular C-130. Things finally got ironed out and they decided they’d fly us down on an LC-130 which is the same plane only with skis so that it can land on the ice. The skis give it the advantage of being able to land on thinner ice because it spreads out the weight of the plane more, yay physics! The disadvantage of the LC-130s though, is that the skis cause a lot of drag, which means it uses more fuel, which means they have to carry more fuel, which means the ACL (Allowable Cargo Load, I totally didn’t have to Google that one to get it right…) is lower. This meant that all of our planning and calculating of how much extra weight we all had kinda went out the window as we only had 100 lbs each including our ECW, not 100 lbs excluding it. We managed though so that’s good.

After the plane logistics were figured out, we got the official manifest of passengers (or PAX) for the first flight. I was happy to see that my name was on that list, the original manifest had me scheduled for the last flight which would have cut things a little close. It looked like things were all set, we were packed, weather looked good, and everyone was getting excited. Here’s where the universe threw us a curveball and a member of our cohort tested positive on their Day 12 COVID test. This meant that the flight scheduled for Monday the 25th was being pushed back to Wednesday the 27th at the earliest. The person who tested positive had to undergo a bunch of additional testing as they tried to determine if it was an active or historical case. Due to the uncertainty, after getting to the new hotel, called the Break Free, we were sequestered to our rooms while people at paygrades much higher than mine worked to figure things out.

The Break Free was an interesting hotel, the closest I can describe it would be as being inspired by Asian pod hotels. The room was pretty small and I’m pretty sure cruise ships have bigger bathrooms… Oh, and did I mention I had an interior room with no window? I had an interior room with no window. Being stuck in there really hammered home the irony of the hotel’s name. After about 36 hours, it was determined that the positive test was historical (meaning not an active case) and we were finally able to get out and enjoy the more relaxed USAP managed isolation. We still had to socially distance and wear masks when not in our rooms, but we were able to actually hang out with people and socialize which was very nice after 3 weeks of not really being able to. We took advantage of this and ordered some Indian food as a group and ate it in person (socially distanced) this time!

We were glad to hear that our flight wasn’t going to be delayed any further. We woke up on the 27th with good weather in both Christchurch and McMurdo. After checking out of my room I went down for some breakfast and to wait until hopping on the shuttle to head to the Antarctic Passenger Terminal. Once there all of our bags were weighed and checked, then we were weighed and sat to wait until the flight safety briefing. Then we donned the ECW that’s required to be worn on the flight. This was probably my least favorite part of the day as it was 88° F and we were wearing gear designed for much, much colder temperatures. We loaded onto the plane 5 at a time so I was able to get pictures while I was sitting and waiting for my turn. On our way on board, they handed us each a sack lunch and a bottle of water to make sure we didn’t go too hungry. A little bit more waiting and then we were off, finally on our way to Antarctica.

Now, if you are unaware, LC-130s are not like many planes you probably picture when thinking about modern air travel. The big difference being that they don’t have jet engines, they have four propellers, two on each wing, each with 8 blades. They are also slower than jet planes so the trip that a C-17 (plane with jet engines) can make in about 5 hours takes between 7-8. I wasn’t too worried though, I had my headphones, music, and my kindle. About 4 hours into the flight, one of my fellow polies asked me to ask the loadmaster (it was easier for me to get out of my seat) what time our point of safe return would be. The point of safe return is how far the plane can go and safely turn around in the event of weather moving in, mechanical problems, etc. When I asked him, he said that point for us was about 4 hours in so we had actually passed it, we were officially 100% going to be going to Antarctica.

A few hours later we were told we’d be arriving in about half an hour and that I should probably sit down (I had gotten up to stretch my legs and look out the window where I managed to get some pictures of sea ice). Not long after that we landed. Not going to lie, I expected landing on skis to be a lot rougher than it was, but it was very distinctly obvious that we had not landed on wheels. It was kind of weird. After coasting a lot further than I’m used to (see previously mentioned skis), we finally came to a stop and were told to get our stuff and get out. Ok, they were nicer than that, but it was obvious that they wanted us to have a sense of urgency. I grabbed my stuff an managed to be the first person off the plane. I made sure to have my cell phone handy so I could easily get pictures of Ivan The Terra Bus per my dad’s request. Ivan is this big old transport that they use to get people from Phoenix Field, where we landed, to McMurdo. The road also goes through Scott Base which is the Kiwi Antarctic base on the same island and not too far from McMurdo.

About an hour after boarding Ivan, we embarked outside of Building 1 in McMurdo which is also known as the Crary Science and Engineering Center, or Crary Lab. We went inside and had a short arrival briefing, then got our room keys and were set loose on the station. At this point it was about 9:30 at night so it had been a very long day. I went and grabbed something to eat from the galley. The U.S. Navy built the original bases so a lot of things still get called their naval equivalent. I finally went back to my room and got my bed all made up after midnight, the sun still shining brightly in the sky.

Today was my first full day here, for the first seven days everyone who arrived with me needs to get their temperature checked to make sure we still don’t have a fever. It’s nice to actually be able to get out and about though. I’ve made my way out to Hut Point twice today, out there is Scott’s Hut, one of the early Antarctic explorers and one of the first people to make it to the South Pole. The first trip out I saw a couple of penguins, I made sure to take a picture with my cell phone since that’s all I had on me. The second trip I made sure to bring my good camera. There had just been some orcas out there so a bunch of penguins had retreated to the sea ice where they couldn’t be eaten. I was able to get a ton of awesome pictures.

I’m going to go ahead and wrap up here, dinner is soon and I need to drop my laptop off at my dorm (where there is no internet). I have a ton of pictures from today and I’m sure I’ll have loads more, unfortunately the internet is very slow here so I probably won’t upload them until I’m down at Pole where there are fewer people sharing the connection. Thanks for sticking around to the end of this one, I know it was a bit longer than the rest of my posts. Hopefully the next post will be from down at Pole!

— Matt “which was is the second stargate again” Butcher

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