First Survey Flight Day


Today was our first full working day at Byrd. I overslept, of course, to get things off to the right start. The Basler engines woke me up 5 minutes before takeoff. I wasn’t completely necessary for the process since I wasn’t flying that day, but it would have been useful for me to be there as ground support. Oh well.

Now I have new and important tasks that require driving a snowmobile out to the plane to drag back some batteries that can’t fly. It also requires doing the job I should have done today – disconnecting the plane from base power so they’re no longer connected to the ground. The flight engineer had no problem doing it, but I’ll definitely be testing my alarm clock before I go to bed tonight.

Today was a pretty typical day work-wise, except now that we’re flying regularly, only one person on our team is awake at base during the flight/day. Today that was me. I’m glad I know so many people around camp already because otherwise it would have been pretty lame. But I was working most of the day anyway so it was mostly just saying hi to people in passing and at meals.

The plane took off at 9am  for a 6.5 hour flight to the coast. Unfortunately, around 2pm this afternoon, a huge fog bank rolled into base camp. It was really weird because you could see it coming in on the horizon for a while but then it seemed to engulf camp in minutes. When the clouds started to pile up to the south, we radioed the plane to let them know the weather was getting bad and they should head for home.

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View of Byrd Camp from my plot in tent city

It took some doing to get a hold of them at first because they were so far away, so the camp staff had to radio Mac Ops (McMurdo Ops who we do our daily head-count radio checks with and whatnot) back in McMurdo. Mac Ops was able to get a hold of the plane and heard they would be heading back at 2:30pm. That time came and went and we got out the VHF radios, assuming they’d be close so we could talk to them. We finally reached them at 2:45 and they were in the area but visibility was extremely low. It was half a mile on the ground,  but as we heard them come in to attempt an approach, we couldn’t see the plane even though the pilot said afterward he was 300 feet off the deck.

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Our flight engineer, Mike, waiting by the generators and heater for the plane to come in, as we often did.

The story we heard later was that the pilots could see 2 flags marking the runway as they came in and then lost them. At that point, he decided the landing was off and climbed back to altitude.  The pilots were all but decided they would be heading to WAIS (West Antarctic Ice Sheet) Divide, which is another station a few hundred miles out.

After a few minutes the station manager pointed out that visibility on the ground had increased to 1 mile. The pilot considered it and made sure he heard right several times before making the decision to come in on another approach. The landing was hairy from the sounds of it, but they were able to get in under the clouds and land alright. Some de-icing was in order when they arrived at the fuel station, but all was fine. The pilot later said they were within minutes of needing to make the course correction to WAIS before risking running out of fuel before they could land somewhere.

A few of us had been waiting at the skiway in case they landed. We passed the time clearing snow from on top of the fuel bladders, which are a lot like giant water beds when you stand on them. After the plane pulled up, we fired up the generators, connected the instruments to ground power, and got to work downloading the data. I also brought on board the 45 lb gravity meter back-up batteries, which someone had driven over on a snowmobile for me (my first snowmobile ride!).

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Fairly typical post-flight scene: generators hooked up to the plane to provide ground power, people mingling while the data collection finished, snowmobile in the foreground waiting to take people back or move sleds around.

At that point, people were pretty shaken up about the landing but happy to be on the ground. The day had been so-so for science due to the weather, but at least we were happy to get the opportunity to fly some survey lines at last.

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Happy to be on the ground safe.

Regardless of how rough the flight went, this weather was a first for me. There had been a lot of talk about the “flat white” effect of being out here in the middle of nowhere. When the weather gets bad and the sun isn’t visible, depth perception is all but destroyed. That’s the real danger in landing under these conditions; besides potentially not being able to see the location of the skiway itself, there is also the issue of not being able to see any hills or bumps along the way.

The same goes with walking around when it’s overcast – there are no shadows or horizon, so although you can see the buildings and things around town, you might not see a slope that is right in front of you, given the pervasive whiteness of everything else. It’s a weird new perception of reality, that’s for sure.

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