When a flight from Christchurch (CHC) to McMurdo (MCM) is delayed due to inclement weather, it hinders productivity on the ice on a number of levels. Safety, however, is the most important priority and Antarctica’s unpredictable weather is a serious threat to aircraft. If the weather forecast at MCM is questionable, the flight will not leave New Zealand.
The shuttle arrived at the hotel to pick up employees at 04:30 this morning. Upon arrival to the International Antarctic Centre, we proceeded to the Clothing Distribution Centre (CDC) to dress in our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) Gear. We then packed our carry-on and “boomerang bags.”
A boomerang bag holds 2-4 days worth of clothing and toiletries to use if the aircraft “boomerangs” back to CHC.
Boomerangs are more fun as a toy than a flight pattern. The flight from CHC to Antarctica is approximately 4.5 hours at it’s fastest and 8 hours at it’s slowest. A boomerang flight is a flight that leaves CHC only to turn around before hitting MCM, which results in up to an 16 hours of airtime.
When a plane boomerangs, USAP will not unload the 3,000+ pounds of luggage just for us to grab an extra set of clothes. That’s what a boomerang bag is for! Boomerang bags are checked in a different location on the plane for easier and faster access.
After we prepare our bags, we take all of our luggage to check in for our flight. Each bag is weighed to ensure we meet the weight allowance and then it’s our turn to step on the scale in full ECW gear.
Each employee is required to wear ECW gear during the entire duration of the flight to the ice. This is to prevent any cold-related injuries in the event of an emergency landing.
In fact, as I am writing this, I am on a plane over the Pacific Ocean wearing insulated socks, bunny boots, fleece thermal leggings, snow shell cover-alls, an undershirt, wool base, and fleece jacket. Tucked under the seat in front of me is a red polar parka with gloves, goggles, and a balaclava stuffed in the pockets.
Once weighed and tagged, we are excused to purchase breakfast from the cafe.
We reconvene at 5:45am to watch a short safety video and go over flight procedures. Just minutes before we are scheduled to leave, we are informed that the flight has been delayed.
At 10:45am, we bus to the airplane. Rumor has it that skies in McMurdo are sunny and clear. I use the bus ride to enjoy the last bits of green I’ll see in a few months. There is a dog herding sheep on the other side of a fence. There are some flowers in the grass. As we approach the hangar, we passed by the C17 that is carrying our luggage and another crew that experienced delays.
We board the aircraft and are handed a bag lunch with two servings of food: One for now, and one just in case the plane boomerangs and we get hungry again.
We choose our seats, watch a safety presentation, and then an announcement comes on the speakers: an hour delay because the weather picked up again.
Warm, tired, and now stuffed in a plane, we laugh off the situation and continue with our meet and greet. Some people trade stories about past delays on the ice while others catch up on sleep. An hour later, we receive approval to take off.
(I must take a moment to explain how hilariously awkward it is to use a bathroom on an airplane in this outfit. There is no room for snow pants in those little boxes!)
It only takes two and a half hours before we hear the announcement that the plane needs to boomerang. Maybe we can fly down tomorrow.
It’s been a long day of sitting and waiting, but this situation puts an entirely new perspective on the difficulties encountered every day by the people working to pursue Antarctic Research. The time and care that is put into a task as simple as flying in personnel is astounding. Safety is always at the forefront, and respect must be given to the continent with the harshest weather on earth.
We are now northbound descending towards New Zealand and we’ll see what tomorrow brings!