Saturday, November 17, 2007

all in a day's work.

I went on my first helicopter ride on thursday.

support forces antarctica (SFA), the joint military command that assists the USAP with cargo airlift logistics, was hosting two DVs (distinguished visitors) this week -- a couple of major (two-star) generals. as part of their visit, they were scheduled to visit the kiwi base, south pole station...and the historic huts of the ross island region -- robert falcon scott's discovery hut (just down the road from mcmurdo), his cape evans terra nova hut, and ernest shackleton's nimrod hut at cape royds. cape evans and cape royds are accessible by mattrack, delta, snowmobile, or helicopter. DVs get to go by helicopter. I, as a trained hut guide, got to go along for the ride.

we met up at the helicopter pax terminal at 1215 on thursday. off-deck was scheduled for 1300. in addition to the two DV generals, there were a major and two colonels acting as their handlers -- all wearing olive-green flight suits under their windpants and parkas. (the military parkas are made by the same company that makes Big Red -- but theirs are Big Olive.) the two DVs, who asked me to call them al and fred, were shortish, older men, very uncle-like and friendly. fred in particular was a real cutie pie. they were based out of hickam AFB in honolulu, so we talked a bit about hawaii and about their recent visits to iraq. they were excited to be in antarctica and had been having a great visit so far. my fears about accompanying two stiff, stilted, stuffy, high-and-tight-sporting officers were quickly allayed.

nick, the helitech who would be flying with us, gave us a safety briefing in the terminal. we were to choose helmets from the rack containing rows and rows of them -- sized S thru XL. I suspected that I would be wearing a small, but nick said most people wear an XL -- and he was right. the S was extremely so, the XL snug but not stifling. he showed us how to fasten the chin straps and adjust the microphones. we all took turns standing on the scale in our ECW gear so nick could calculate our weights for the flight load. then nick explained crash positions, how and when to use the radios embedded in the helmets, and how to engage and disengage the four-point safety belts. we would be flying on a Bell A212, better known to those with military experience as a Huey. and it was a gorgeous day, clear and sunny, with minimal wind.

nick introduced us to scott, our pilot. the helitechs and pilots at mcmurdo work for a contractor called PHI - petroleum helicopters, inc. they are known to run an extremely tight operation, and the pilots are some of the best in the business. we need only look out our chalet window on a stormy day to witness them delicately maneuvering a monstrous machine and touching down on a pad about the size of a lunch tray to know that we're in good hands.

we squeezed in and strapped up, nick shut the doors, and scott started up the engines. scott gave us a little heads-up over the radio and we took off. after a brief hesitation, the helicopter rose a few feet off the ground, banked to the left, and shot up and out over the ice runway. mcmurdo got smaller and smaller to our right. I was seated next to one of the generals, fred, and we oohed and ahhed as mount erebus rose up with its plume of steam. we buzzed further and further north, gaining altitude. it was fantastic, a tiny dragonfly-shaped canister containing seven men and excited little me.

fred had a little stuffed Penky the Penguin doll in his backpack. he took it out during the flight and set it up on the windowsill and snapped a photo of it. this impressed me no end and I developed an even bigger platonic crush on him. here's a picture of us in the helicopter.

we landed at cape royds, our first destination, about fifteen minutes later. scott brought us down a few hundred feet from the hut and the ASPA (antarctic specially protected area) containing the adelie penguin rookery, where thousands of the little birds were lounging in the sun, trumpeting and flapping their wings, sitting on their eggs, or running about after each other. skuas circled overhead. we walked out to the volcanic rocks where I had snapped the photo of werner herzog and his cameraman last season to get a closer look at the penguins. they couldn't have cared less that we were there and went about their usual penguiny business.

we could have stood there all day, but our pilot had to fly up to the summit of mt. erebus later in the afternoon, so eventually we made our way to the nimrod hut. this was the base for ernest shackleton's team of 15 men, ten ponies and nine dogs during their run for the south pole in 1908. they only made it to the magnetic south pole. the loss of their final pony, who was pulling a sled packed with food, forced them to turn around when a mere 97 miles from the geographic south pole in order to avoid starvation on the way home. shackleton and two of his men battled dysentery and weather on the way back, but were later rescued and the nimrod sailed north, a little over a year since it had first landed at royds, with all souls safely aboard.

after the guys had their fill of snapping pictures and examining the artifacts left in the hut, we went back out to the helicopter and took off for cape evans. we landed and encountered a small team at the terra nova hut -- folks from the Antarctic Heritage Trust out of NZ, who have been engaged in a several-year project to preserve the huts in the ross island region and the artifacts in them. they were about to break for lunch, but one of the team generously offered to take us through the hut and give us a brief tour. he showed us the stables, where the team had kept the mules and ponies, with bales of chaff still stacked against the walls and horse-sized snowshoes hung from the support beams. outside, he pointed out the huge anchor, half buried, from which the ship had ripped loose with tons of food and other supplies on board, leaving the men to winter with just what they had brought ashore.

to me, the most human and heartbreaking thing about the cape evans hut is some graffito scratched on the inside wall of one of the bunkbeds. it's impossible to see without craning your neck and using a flashlight, but written there by some miserable, frozen, stinky, half-starved crew member is a list entitled Losses to Date. a number of names follow, names of unfortunate fellows who had succumbed to starvation, illness or freezing. the very last name reads 'Shack?' ernest shackleton had not returned from his attempt on the south pole, and was feared lost and therefore dead. (he wasn't.)

on the way back to mcmurdo, the pilot took us up near an icefall at the foot of erebus. the results of massive, snails'-pace scrunchings and smashings of giant slabs of ice and snow were awesome to behold. some days I feel pretty jaded, after two and a half seasons on the ice. things like sunsets, views of the mountains, the endlessly changing weather lose a little bit of their magic. I find myself going through the vicious daily cycle of eat-work-gym-eat-sleep. and then I get to do something ultra-cool like this. and it really wakes me up to the fact that I'm doing something that most people will never, ever get the opportunity to do in their entire lives. and I feel pretty humbled and lucky.

helmety love,

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

package mail joy.

we got 14,000 pounds of package mail yesterday -- there is much rejoicing on station.

one of my three packages was a mailing tube containing a copy of the film poster for Encounters at the End of the Earth. here we are.

and here's the web address of an MSNBC story on ann curry's return to the studio in new york, and an interview about her time on the ice. (for some reason, blogger isn't letting me turn it into a real hyperlink, so you'll have to copy and paste.)

and here's a picture of myrna and me at our desks in the chalet.

more soon!

birds on deck.

because of bad weather most of last week, we've been flying C-17 missions all weekend to try to catch up. a C-17 arrived and departed saturday, carrying the Today Show crew with it north to christchurch. the same aircraft then took off at midnight on saturday and landed at 0500, carrying only cargo and no pax. it went back to christchurch and launched AGAIN at 1500, arriving at mcmurdo 2019 with thirty-three pax on board.

I was grabbing dinner in the galley on sunday night and ran into my friend sharona. she asked what I was up to that evening and I told her I had to work the incoming flight. she mentioned that she and her boyfriend had been talking earlier about how life in the mcmurdo community (really, every community on the continent) revolves around the flight schedule. every intercontinental flight brings either pax, cargo or some combination of the two, and the effect ripples out through the station like shredded carrots in a lime jell-o mold.

as soon as a plane is in the air, a departure message goes out to a select distribution list, containing information on departure and arrival times (to the minute), weight and contents of cargo, names and affiliations of pax, and names and rank of crew members. I take the information in that e-mail and forward it in turn to another distribution list, but not before I change the subject line to Arrival Brief for AZM-019: Dining Hall at 1445 / Meet 'n' Greet at 1530. this lets pertinent parties know where and when to show up to meet their wide-eyed new folks.

the flurry of activity set in motion by an incoming flight affects:

fuelies (who need to be at the airfield to fuel the plane before it takes off again)

cargo handlers (who will be unloading and then loading the plane)

air pax service representatives (who are in charge of the passenger manifests)

loadplanners (who are responsible for tracking every piece of cargo on every flight)

surveyors (who measure the deflection of the sea ice when the aircraft lands on it and bends it out of shape)

aircraft ground equipment personnel (who haul 1,200-pound heating units out to the planes and hook them up to the engines to keep them warm while the planes are on the ground)

firefighters (who are on standby at station 2, the airfield station, in the event of an airplane engine going out or other unlikely snafu)

shuttle drivers (who transport outgoing pax and crew to the apron and pick up incoming pax to bring to town)

chalet staff (who conduct the arrival briefing for incoming pax)

crary lab staff (who prepare office spaces and key cards for incoming grantees)

housing and janitorial staff (who plot dorm room assignments, notify existing roommates, and leave packets of bed linens on beds)

galley employees (who have to plan down to the single individual how many meals to prepare)

all this activity, and probably more, caused by one little airplane.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

chasing ann.

this morning I called ann curry and woke her up so she could take a phone call from the states. she had been out late with the crew and sounded very groggy, but was nonetheless cheery and professional.

later this morning I went over to the coffeehouse, where she was hanging out waiting for word on whether they would fly to the pole today (ultimate answer: still TBD). I had been charged with two small boxes containing gifts from a couple of guys in FEMC -- an erebus crystal from bobby the sheet metal worker, and a silver pendant made by harry the pipefitter, containing a smaller crystal. I gave her the boxes and explained the significance of the erebus crystals -- they are produced by only two volcanoes in the world -- mt. erebus here in antarctica, and mt. kenya in africa -- and their proper nomenclature is anorthoclase crystals. she was very touched and exclaimed over how pretty they were.

I also gave her one of my crocheted flower corsages and she said she would wear it on TV. here's a picture of her in her new finery.

ann and the rest of her crew are stuck here until at least tomorrow, when the first C-17 of the week is scheduled to launch. we don't mind much having them around. her crew is a bunch of cool, laid-back guys that give us little NBC and Today Show gifts and marvel over what a fun, unique place mcmurdo is. check out this GREAT article, written by their sound engineer bobby:

Where'd all the Ph.D's go? Antarctica

Posted: Monday, November 05, 2007 7:39 AM by Jen Brown
Filed Under: Ends of the Earth
(From Bob Lapp, TODAY engineer/audio operator)

We have a saying in the freelance world, “stupid people make us money” and “the dumber they are, the more money we make”. The examples are endless; athletes and dog fighting, racist disc jockeys, the majority of Hollywood under 25 and OJ. You also find that most people you meet want to be famous, by talent or by sheer ignorance, it does not matter, whatever gives them their 15mins of fame. Just take a look at the explosion of “Reality TV”, You Tube, or any of the web based “video garbage cans”, somehow peoples lives will never be complete if they are not part of some massive download, or talked about on cable news.

Michael Jackson paid for my master bathroom remodel and The Enron trial paid my mortgage for 6 months…(tragic yes, but they still make the stupid list for thinking they could get away with it!), and the everyday criminal puts food on my table…..yes it is the moron money train.

Don’t get me wrong, Idiots have been keeping me busy for 20 years and I got two kids to put through college. But I often wonder what happened to all those people who actually paid attention in college? Where are all those selfless folks who wanted to save the world, not own it?

I only had to travel to the bottom of the earth to find them.

The brain drain went to Antarctica. You can’t swing a drunken celebrity and not hit a Ph.D at McMurdo Station. It is not just the folks who are doing the science that have a pedigree, but people with Master degrees are driving the vans, cooking the food and doing the dishes.

These are all the people who ruined the curve for me in science class. When I hoped they would all “drop off the face of the earth”….who knew it would happen? I think the only marginally educated people at McMurdo are on our TV crew. (I speak for myself as only a BA degree holder.) Yes, I think the collective IQ dropped when my feet hit the ice. When these guys name drop, it isn’t “Brangelina”, Speilberg or Streisand, but rather MIT, Harvard and Air Force Academy. I think you have every top 20 university that threw out my application, represented here. These are incredible educated people working on enormously important projects in some really tough conditions. I don’t know what these guys are pulling down a year but I haven’t seen much Prada at the dinner table. I actually think these men and women do this for the betterment of mankind?

I hate to tell them but you’re never getting on “Inside Edition” with that kind of attitude!

All kidding aside, get down to Antarctica and recharge your faith in what mankind can do. This is the place where the frontier spirit is alive and well, and you see the type of drive, determination and grit that once made all of us proud to be an American. (Please insert, Kiwi, Aussie, Brit, Italian and other where applicable)

There are three undeniable truths about my trip to Antarctica:
1. These are some of the finest people I have had the privilege to work around.
2. None of these people will make it on TMZ.COM
3. I couldn’t make a dime in TV at McMurdo.

here's the link to the article on the Today Show's blog:

and this, from their wrangler and POC, a guy named peter, who is obviously impressed with the treatment and reception they got from the mcmurdo community this week:

Not to trivialize, but as I said last night (actually early this morning) it's a heck of a world we live in when someone in Greenland or Ecuador can dance in real time on national TV to a band playing on the Chalet deck in McMurdo.

Much more importantly, in the context of public awareness of the International Polar Year and NSF's / Raytheon's mission in Antarctica, this is a "slam-dunk", "a home-run," choose your metaphor for excellence.

I never, at any time, encountered a single moment's hesitation on anyone's part to do what I asked them to do (no matter how seemingly absurd the task) from the creating a breakfast plate in the galley to enduring blasting cold in the Chalet offices to make the Nightly News live shot a success, to the folks in Crary who cobbled together a weather station -- and this goes without saying in the television business -- on short notice.

And without the support of Joe and his team on phones and networking, this could have easily been as big a PR bust as a boon.

Speaking from personal experience, it is easy to say in an office at NSF: "Wouldn't it be great to be part of a global broadcast." It's quite another to actually make it work.

I will not take a chance and name names too many names for fear of accidentally forgetting someone who played a key role; but I will say that it is not possible to thank the community enough.

I was also very personally satisfied--and I strongly hope that this was a result of a bug or two dropped in key ears--that in addition to focusing on the science that drives the mission, the producers and "talent" saw fit to include the community in the broadcast as so many expected...and surely deserved.

Words fail me. I am proud and exceedingly fortunate to be a small part of something--and I don't limit this to this broadcast specifically--so very, very fine.

peter and his group had pretty much taken over our offices for a couple of days, since the filming you saw on the Today Show and the Nightly News took place on our deck. the chalet was full of cables, boxes of sound and video equipment, fancy monitors and mics. they were very apologetic about all the stuff they'd strewn everywhere, which was nice of them, and we in turn made an effort to make them feel at home too. the reference to the 'blasting cold in the Chalet offices' in his e-mail was because the doorway to the deck was so full of cables being run through it it wouldn't close properly and cold air was coming into the room where myrna and I sit. I was there, eating a tuna-fish sandwich I'd picked up from the galley, and peter (knowing I'd just gotten over the flu) told me to go into his temporary office in the back of the chalet to eat so I wouldn't have a relapse.

the weather has been absolute crap this week. hardly any flights north- or southbound. a herc containing 39 pax took off for pole this past monday, circled and attempted several landings, and ultimately had to boomerang back to mcmurdo -- but not before fully half of the passengers had gotten airsick. people were puking in their GoPicnic box lunches and in their hats. there were jokes about cleaning the aircraft out with a fire hose.

but I'm influenza-free, and everything's pretty great!
more soon.

low visibility love,

Saturday, November 03, 2007

rosie lives.

as promised.

here's another pic, of me and my friend skippy. skippy is a pal of my ice sistah amber, who is in grad school this season and not on the ice *sniff*. skippy is an operations GA (general assistant), which means that he's on the bottom rung of the pay scale and has to shovel lots of snow, but gets to go all kinds of cool places in order to do the shoveling. he's already spent a couple of weeks out at WAIS (western antarctic ice sheet). lucky guy!

and here's a picture of rosie herself, in all her WWII-era glory. I love rosie because even though she's a badass mama jama working in a munitions factory, she obviously cares enough about her appearance to apply false eyelashes before heading to her job. we can do it indeed!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

broadcast times

monday, 5 november, Today Show
tuesday, 6 november, Today Show
tuesday, 6 november, NBC Nightly News

all dates are US, not NZ.

turn on that Tivo and enjoy!

quarantine love,
chalet cindy