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Transportation in Support of Science: Helicopters

ILULISSAT, GREENLAND– (By Lisa Strong-Aufhauser) In a place as remote as Greenland, getting science done takes a lot of planning, logistics, and, let’s face it, money. There are no roads between towns or villages in Greenland. Transportation is via plane, helicopter, boat, Hagglund, snow machine, or dogsled in the winter. In more recent years, satellites have given scientists a fantastic overhead view of the Greenland icesheet and outlet glaciers, but there is nothing like ground truthing the pictures taken from above. The costs can be well worth it – if you can arrange it. Getting out to these remote locations requires specialized vehicles as well as experienced and intrepid pilots.

Mary and I have flown with three different helicopter pilots – Morton Hauerbach, Ønstein Holmen, and Peter Haj. All lifted off and landed in some austere, beautiful and remote locations, often under challenging conditions of wind or the absence of flat space to set down. We flew to Mark Fahnestock’s camp which was perched on a rock ridge above the calving face of the Jakobshavn Glacier with Morton. The door was off the helicopter so Mark could load the reflectors and place them onto the glacier while the helicopter hovered just above the ice. The open door caught the wind off the glacier like a sail when we landed. I imagine it must have been an instance of precision flying to set the reflectors out safely and successfully, which they did.

Shooting an iceberg out of the helicopter.

Ønstein took us to Sarah Das’s camp out on the Greenland ice sheet where they were studying a surface lake, which had drained before them two days before we got there. The science team hired the helicopter for an aerial survey of the surrounding area to find more ice-top lakes. The perspective from the helicopter is deceptive when flying over the vast white plain with no visual landmarks. While we found the drained lake with GPS technology, we flew around a few times before recognizing those tiny dots below where, in fact, tents and people waiting for us.

Peter flew Tom Neumann’s geology team along the ice edge looking for rocks for a day. We tagged along. Tom and his group peered out the windows looking at places where they might find rocks entrained in the ice. They never considered where we might land! Peter once set us down on a spot so small the ground fell away at the exact spot that the skids curved up. We landed in a spot so windy, Peter had to tie the rotor down while we were on the ground. Another time, Mary and I had to duck behind a rock and cover the video equipment with our bodies as the helicopter landed feet away, then jump in while the rotors were still spinning.

Here is a video montage of some of our helicopter time.

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