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Our Chariot Awaits

October 10, 2008

MCMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA– After an early start for breakfast in Christchurch, New Zealand, I went to the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) before most of the Team to turn in my excess baggage: the camera equipment provided by the Exploratorium for Ice Stories. This gave me quite a bit of time to repack my personal belongings in the orange bags the U.S. Antarctic Program provided.

My ‘Big Red’.

I didn’t have to rush and was able to take it easy. I had the opportunity to explore around the International Antarctic Centre. It was a lot of fun to walk around this museum of Antarctic exploration and see how things have changed over time. On display were old style sleds that the explorers used to transport their gear and supplies. What was really interesting was to see the clothing Polar explorers of the past used to wear and then compare it to what was provided to me and everyone going down to the Ice.

The International Antarctic Centre.

There’s even an indoor replica of an Antarctic scene to give people the sense of what life on the Ice is like. There’s real snow and it’s kept really cold, but the children looked like they were having fun. I think some were even having a snow ball fight!

Kids playing in ‘Antarctica’.

Finally it was time to check in and weigh our bags because we were getting close to when we were supposed to board the plane and take off. This is handled by New Zealand military. We all had to weigh our checked luggage and our “boomerang bags,” the bags that would be returned to us if we couldn’t land at McMurdo Station and had to come back to New Zealand. We all had to step on the scales ourselves while holding our carry-on bags. Every pound on the plane gets accounted for to make sure it’s not too heavy.

Lining up to check and weigh luggage.

Shakira Brown and Andrea Balbas checking in.

We all had to watch a video before we boarded the plane that covered various safety issues and protecting the fragile environment while down in Antarctica. Afterward, we all got on buses that took us to the C-17….our chariot awaits!

Our chariot awaits: the C-17.

I was really happy to get on the plane. It was such an exciting moment because I knew (hoping we didn’t get boomeranged) that I would be stepping out onto the continent of Antarctica the next time the plane door opened!

Me boarding.

The inside of the plane was nothing like I’ve ever seen. It certainly didn’t look like the commercial flights I’ve been on before. All of the parts of the plane were exposed and the seating was quite different than I’m used to, with only the front and the rear of the plane having actual airplane seats. Most of the seats were along the sides facing into the middle. The rest were in the middle facing out.

Inside the plane.

Here’s a picture of Marv Speece (middle), the geophysicist who is charge of the generating the imagery of the sediments below the sea floor. On either side are his students David (left) and Brian (right).

Marv Speece (center), and his students David (left) and Brian
(right) strapped in.

I even had the chance to get up into the cockpit for a few minutes to talk with the flight crew and to see what it was like up there!

Sitting in the cockpit.

When we boarded the plane I asked one of the lieutenants if it would be okay to use my handheld GPS to track the flight path of the plane from Christchurch to Pegasus landing field at McMurdo Station. He asked the ranking officer and it was agreed that it was okay.

On-board GPS flight information.

Pegasus is an ice runway about a 45-minute drive from McMurdo Station. As you can see from the GPS, we were flying pretty high, and at the time of the photo (NZ time), were already pretty far south after being in the air for only about 1 ½ hours. The GPS also showed me that we were traveling at a little over 500 miles per hour!

There were only a few windows in the plane, but once we had made it below about 70 degrees south latitude, everybody got really excited and word spread that there was something other than water or clouds to see. The line grew longer and longer, but I finally made it to the front and had a peak out the window….my first view of Antarctica!

My first view of Antarctica.

The flight crew instructed everyone to get all of our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear on and to buckle into our seats. We began our descent to the white continent. Words can’t really explain how I felt at the time. I knew we weren’t getting boomeranged. I knew that I would breathe in the icy, dry air in just a short while. I was bubbling over with excitement, and Shakira was too! We were finally arriving in Antarctica.

Shakira Brown and me geared up and ready to land.

I’ll never forget my first steps onto the Ice. Mt. Erebus was in plain view, sending its smoke and vapor into the air a distance off. The moon was high above (don’t forget that it was about 9:30 at night!), and I felt like I was meeting a long-lost friend, a friend that I’ve known for a very long time.

My first steps on the continent – Mt. Erebus with the moon – 9:30pm.

It was with that comfortable feeling and exhilaration that I boarded “Ivan” the Terra Bus for the most scenic drive in the world, the drive on the ice over McMurdo Sound.

‘Ivan’ the Terra Bus.
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