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Walking to Base McMurdo, photo courtesy Regina Eisert

NSF Polar Program

U.S. Antarctic Program


The National Zoo's Antarctica Expedition is sponsored by the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs.

All photographs depicting Weddell seals were taken under NMFS Permit No. 763-1485-00 issued under the authority of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

 

 

 

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C-17s, Boomerangs, and Pegasus
August 28, 2006

Hello from Antarctica. I am in my office at McMurdo (at about 77° S, 168° E) typing out this first dispatch truly from The Ice, to relate the saga of how I got here.

photo courtesy Regina Eisert
Regina in her ECW

The day before the flight (August 25), we went to the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center) in Christchurch, New Zealand, to try on our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather gear). ECW is what stands between us and bitter, killing Antarctic cold, and it is very important that clothing fits just right. A shuttle bus picked us up from our hotel at 3:15 Saturday morning (I didn't bother going to bed) and took us to the Antarctic Centre, where we changed into our ECW. Then we dragged our bright orange duffel bags to the Antarctic departure gate for baggage check-in. I had two big suitcases in addition to my duffels and felt like a cooked goose in my ECW by the time I'd manhandled the luggage to the check-in counter.

Once checked in, my fellow passengers and I waited around while the plane was loaded. This part was a lot like regular airline travel. Finally, we had our hand luggage and our persons checked by drug dogs, x-rays, and metal detectors, then clambered onto buses that took us to the plane, a huge hulking C-17. At check-in, we were given earplugs, which I initially mistook for candy, and we really needed them—this plane is LOUD. There are very few windows and the interior is pretty bare-bones. We were handed lunch in a big brown paper bag along with advice not to eat it all in case we boomeranged (that is, if the plane has to return to Christchurch due to adverse weather conditions at McMurdo). There are no instrument landings at McMurdo, it's all done visually, and Antarctic weather is famously variable, so boomeranging is always a possibility. 


Passengers aboard the C-17 flight to McMurdo Station
I slept for most the ride (my down parka made an excellent pillow), gently rocked by turbulence, but woke up for the descent. I fly a lot but I must say that landing in a plane without windows is somewhat disconcerting. We landed at the Pegasus Runway, about which the McMurdo Station Guide says the following:

Pegasus White Ice Runway
Approximately 18 miles from McMurdo Station on the McMurdo Ice Shelf, Pegasus White Ice Runway is the most unique of the runway systems in the U.S. Antarctic Program. The airfield sits on an approximately 110-foot-thick glaciated shelf with three to four inches of compacted snow on top, better known as “white ice.â€� Pegasus consists of a 10,000-foot-long, 150-foot-wide single runway, fuel pit, and parking area, and does not include a crosswind runway. Depending on the planning of flights, approximately four to six C-141 or C-17 flights land and depart from Pegasus during the WINFLY period (Winter Fly-In period—the first flights to The Ice after winter). The runway is then closed until early January as the annual sea ice runway and Williams Field skiway are utilized throughout most of the summer season. Pegasus is not used throughout this time due to its distance from McMurdo.

Photo courtesy Regina Eisert

Passengers disembark at McMurdo in blustery conditions.

Once I disembarked and was on The Ice, I couldn't believe the pilots had landed the plane in this weather—the visibility was pretty poor with a bitter wind blowing snow and obscuring everything beyond 100 meters—but I was profoundly grateful that they had, boomeranging is no fun. We barely touched the ice before we boarded another bus (“Ivan the Terra Bus”) and were taken to McMurdo Station. I would like to say that we were awed by our first glimpses of The Ice, but the blizzard outside and ice on the bus windows obscured all but a white mist. We were taken to a low building, greeted, and given a welcome briefing. As I have found out since then, briefings happen a lot here. I guess it is an efficient way to make sure that people don't do anything monumentally stupid (and potentially fatal) before they have a chance to get used to the place.  

Regina Eisert
McMurdo Station