Sunday, January 30, 2011

My Sunday with the Emperor(s)

Sunday.  My day off.  Finally, a chance to sleep in a bit, relax, not be off and out the door at 5:45 like the other days.  McMurdo is quiet, a bit overcast and little blustery.  The wind generators on the hill are some of the only sounds as they crank away about the town. 
Looking out from Hut Point Peninsula over Mcmurdo Sound
A short walk down the hill and out to Hut Point Peninsula to help clear the head is always nice.  Our fuel tanker is on its way in the channel as well to dock finally this morning as well.  It going to be a busy "day off" for some of our folks here today.
A look back at "Mactown"
So I hiked back into town and headed in to see what was going on.  The recreation department runs a nice program for folks if interested on Sundays and after work during the week as well to help the pass time here.  If there is any wildlife in the vicinity they'll provide transportation on their day off out to the site around town and allow you to photograph and take in the sights as long as you want. 

Today...Penguins!  Yes the mighty emperor has wandered inland a ways.  The month of January is typically when they are molting (shedding their feathers) and growing a new coat.  They tend to wander inland away from the colony, pick a knoll, and open spot and simply not move for about a month, don't eat, leave their pile of feathers behind and then finally wander back and return to the sea.  If you want to read more on the breed, check out this site

We drove about 20 minutes out of town on the ice shelf to where one of the larger groups seemed to pick their spot.  Not sure why this little hill, maybe the flag, maybe a little wind break--not sure.  They seem happy though, staring off into the distance pondering whatever they ponder.  They are about 3 1/2' tall, the largest penguins in the world, fairly quiet in this setting and extremely stoic.

Enough of me, now on with the pictures!

A good example of a molting pair.  Nice mohawk.

Playing "King of the Hill".  All the dark spots on the hill are their feathers.

So that was pretty amazing.  Under the Antarctic Treaty, unless in direct support of science, you can't get any closer than 25' of wildlife.  These guys could care less that we were there.  They had little inquisitive looks, like "why are you out here?" but our presence had no impact on them.  With no natural predator out of the water, we were just another group of penguins to them. 

Just another great experience to chalk up for here.  I hope this doesn't get routine that I don't truly appreciate what I am getting to see and do.  These encounters are amazing.  Now off to the rest of Sunday.  Take care all, talk to you again soon!  Hope you like the pics.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Otters, Penguins and Seals..oh my!

Back to the grind.  Another day at the office.  Well not really.  The office has one of the best views in the world and no day is the same as the last.  Finally off to go fly fixed wing finally yesterday.  We operate light and medium lift aircraft owned and crewed by Kenn Borek Air. They fly both Twin Otters (DHC-6) and Baslers (DC-3T) throughout the continent.  Right now we have 5 Otters and 2 Baslers here flying missions throughout the continent for around 100+ days a season.
Our heavy counterpart operated by 109th AW from the NY ANG
  In McMurdo, we operate most of the fixed wing flying out of Pegasus Field, it is a blue ice runway used mainly by wheeled aircraft on the shelf ice open all season long.  There is a skiway perpendicular as well for the LC-130's operated by the NY Air National Guard and our Otters and Baslers which are ski equipped. 

I promise you, in the picture are the two largest runways (one ice, one skiway)
on the continent.
  The ice runway is the only one on the continent, all other fields are either groomed skiways or open field landings, meaning unprepared snow.  Our mission wasn't too glorious today as most of the big camps we were trying to get into have been weathered out for the past few days.  The schedulers have a dynamic schedule with about 3-4 deep of backup missions to be flown in the event primary fields are below minimums for landing.

Flying out through the Trans-Antarctic Mountain Range
Our mission was to fly out to Cape Lankester and find and pull out a recently found Kiwi fuel cache that was lost for about 20 years.  As I've previously mentioned, fuel is the lifeblood around here, without it nothing happens.  Given the fact there are no other "airports" to drop in at for fuel along a route of flight, each year fuel caches are built and flown out in the field to allow for a maximum amount of flexibility for missions.  They are all over.  However, they get lost sometimes.  Even though you swear you put it "right there" and marked the GPS position of it to 3 decimal points, flagged it, etc they get buried, lost, etc. 

Glacier ice falls near the Skeleton Glacier

So off we flew.  An uneventful takeoff on a decent day, about 6,000' overcast--off to the cache we flew, about 170 miles away.    

Some major crevices as we approach the glacial snow field at Cape Lankester
 We flew through the Trans-Antarctic Mountain Range which traverse and divide the continent.  There are hundreds of science projects going on at various camp sites throughout the range as well. As we approached the glacier the cache was on we surveyed the line we were planning on landing from ~1,000' determining where and hidden crevices may be hiding under the blown snow.  Its like evaluating sea state from above, you can see much more of the big picture from 1,000' versus 200'.  We made one pass initially to effective groom a skiway by landing light on the skis and then basically fly the flare with power on dragging the skis along for 800-1,000' or so.  We waved off and evaluated the work we did and then continued back to set up for our final approach.  Checklists were complete, on down we went.  The Otter has a final approach speed around 70 Kts and we touched down, jammed it into reverse and stopped in about 600', landing about 4-5 degrees upslope and taxied to where the fuel was dug out and prepped for us a few weeks earlier.
On final...

An old fuel cache we're picking up. Each one is about 400 lbs of fuel (55 Gallon)

Tail on my first Otter landing
 Once the reality of what we just did wore off, and the beauty of the surrounding landscape soaked in it was off to work.  We had to man handle these 400 lb 55 gallon drums into the back of the plane.  Thankfully their company had developed an "easy way" to roll the barrels up the ramp and pull them up with a tie down strap.  It worked fairly easy and took about 5 minutes to load the 4 barrels we could take.
Atop the glacier.  No runways out here.

The first of many more to follow.

The back end of the Otter with half the cached fuel drums 

Taxiing to the fuel pits back at Pegasus
 So we took off and headed back to Pegasus.  We arrived after about an hour and I headed back to base from there.  As we drove back along the ice road to McMurdo there are more and more critters coming out of the water and wandering as the seasonal sea ice breaks up.  The emperor penguins are incredibly tame and relaxed.  Very inquisitive as they try to figure out why on earth we are down here. 
A lone Emperor checking out flight ops.

A small group of Emperors along the ice road to the airfield.
 Once back here, I wanted to go for a hike as it was clearing up nicely out and the winds were calm which makes life bearable for extended periods.  There are a series of trails and loops around here that we are cleared to hike on.  No creating your own adventure here as people have died in the past wandering off of planned trails and into 100' crevices.  So let's stick to the trail.

There's a nice 3 mile loop around Observation Hill (or Ob Hill) that I opted for.  It's one of the bare exposed trails so I didn't need crampons or anything for snow so it is one of the preferred routes for me.  It also leads down to the sea ice edge where right now there is a nice spot of open water for the Seals to come up and hand out by.  There are Weddell Seals which are unique to Antarctica here.  About 8 were hanging out when I came by.  Larger groups in the 100's are further out on the ice but outside of camera range. 

Wind at work over the years on the boulders along the trail.

Hiking around "Ob Hill" loop after work to unwind.

Open water and Weddell Seals at the base of Ob Hill 

A Weddell Seal catching some rays
So all in all a nice fun day at the office.  I wrapped up the day at a reception for a bunch of visiting DoD VIPs touring the site. Not too bad.  Today's looking nice again, calm winds, still cold.  Our fuel tanker is coming into the port this afternoon to begin the week long fuel offload evolution as well.  Hopefully everyone is doing well back home.  Heard there was plenty of snow in DC, wonder if we got any down south?  Take care!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Getting ready for Winter over

As the Austral-Summer nears its end and a sunset is only 21 days away, McMurdo is a buzz of people preparing to head off the ice, talking of plans to vacation, seeing family, etc.  There are a few though that have just arrived.  These folks are a special breed.  The few are around 120 or so that winter-over.  By choice.  You just can't abandon the base as some projects are monitored year round on the science side of thing, the rest are mainly keeping the place running.  Literally.  Keeping furnaces lit, checking pipes, etc. 

One of the big preparations before the winter over is getting the once a year delivery of our life blood, fuel.  As green as this place is, it still requires around 6 million gallons of fuel (mainly aviation) to get along.  Its not as easy as it may seem however--if anyone thought it was easy out there.  You see the Ross Sea is Frozen.  We're about 20 miles from the ice edge.  How do you get the fuel here?  In comes the ice breaker Oden.
Oden in the turning basin

Oden in the main channel
 Oden arrived here about the same day I did 2 weeks ago and has been non-stop clearing the channel.  The idea is to break up the sea ice and hope for a good wind in the right direction and it will blow out most of the ice-sluree to open sea.  That hasn't quite happened yet however the tanker has arrived and is awaiting the pier to be prepared.

Our fuel a mile off shore waiting to come in.  Scott's hut and Vince's cross in the foreground.
There in lies another tricky situation.  The pier.  Our pier is a shaped ice sheet.  Right now the ship can't come in because she's too big and too much draft for the current "shape" of the edge of the pier.

Charges being placed on the ice pier
The beauty of ice is, if you don't like the shape of something you can adjust it.  Well, there is a big shelf that juts out under the current pier that smaller vessels had no problem with however this deep draft tanker is at risk of breaching the hull is it comes in like this.  Unfortunately it was not realized until yesterday that it would be a problem.  Ooops.  So in the meanwhile the divers have been down apparently setting up some shaped charges to knock the entire edge off the pier and have a flat sheer section all the way down.  Hopefully I can catch them when them do blow it as it should be fairly impressive. 

Anyhow, a busy day here.  Meeting after meeting.  No fun stuff unfortunately.  The weather finally lifted today so we're getting some missions done from our recent backlog.  Well, I'm off for now.  Take care all!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Tour de Ross Island

So after a long day at work, what better way than unwind with a flight to a penguin colony, right? That's what I've always said at least.  So one of the guys took a spill running yesterday morning and asked if I wanted to go in his place while he mended. Ummmm, yes!  Off we went once again. 

We had a great day. CAVU (ceiling and visibility unlimited). Calm winds.  Around 20 degrees.  So off we flew.  To Cape Crozier on Ross Island.

Cape Crozier is the largest, southernmost colony of Adelie Penguins in the world. There is a field camp there where research is conducted all summer long studying the colony and the surrounding ecosystem.  Learn more about it at if you'd like more.

 Flying off towards the Cape, along Hut Point Peninsula and across "Windless Bight" at the base of Erebus which was busy spewing gasses all day yesterday atop is 12,400' crater.

As we flew the 50 mile flight, we went over the Terror Glacier (flowing off of Mount Terror--names after 1 of R.F.Scott's vessel Terror) ...these glacial crests as we flew along were amazing.  These crevasses were easily 200' deep.

 We came over the ridge system and back on to the wind swept backside of Mt Terror.  Katabatic Winds flowing down slope constantly grind the snow down to the exposed volcanic soil there.  Surrounding the rookery, there is what is called an ASPA (Antarctic Special Protected Area) meaning "no fly" in simple terms.  There are strict rules in place how aircraft and people can interface with wildlife.  I didn't have a permit for this trip so I was unable to got into the rookery.  There were no wanderers near the camp we landed at either.  The ASPA covers most of the birds, however they still wander around all over.  Hopefully next time around. 
 We landed upslope near the camp and picked up 3 scientists and about 1000 lbs of their gear to haul back to McMurdo.
Cape Crozier rookery is in the background in the fog bank 800' below us.

Our friend the Skua...

A nice view of the open Ross Sea free of sea ice, with a lone iceberg floating
along. For perspective, that has about 200' high edges and is about a 5 square mile
chunk of ice. 

A quick word or two on safety for the pax...
 The return leg we flew over the saddle between Mt Terror and Erebus called Mt Terra Nova.  As the Aurora Glacier flows off the saddle and becomes shelf ice takes along with it parts of the range and pretty much anything it wants to.  Below are some dramatic ice falls at the end of the flow.

Another flight through the Windless Bight on our way back to base. 
Hut Point Peninsula, Mt Erebus and the Windless Bight on the way home.

Another good example of where sea ice (temporary) meets shelf ice (semi-permanent)
and it's interface, kind of like a fault line geological terms.
Once again a great day at the office.  Less than a few weeks to go here.  Scary thing is I am getting the job (and like it too).  It has its challenges but all in all after the initial shock and fear of the unknown things are coming together.  Hopefully it continues this way as I continue to get more responsibility and knowledge of the operations.  

Hope to talk to all soon.  Off to another science lecture tonight.  Not sure the subject.  Hope its interesting! Cheers!