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!

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