Friday, February 08, 2008

eclipse craziness.

the christchurch airport has been closed due to an attempted hijacking. this means our C-17 will certainly not launch on time -- it was scheduled to off-deck in CHC at 1000 this morning.

what complicates matters is that there are 15 pax coming out of the south pole station via LC-130 this morning as well. they were destined to land at pegasus airfield at around the same time as the C-17, get off one aircraft, and get on the other -- and head straight on to CHC. they are what we call 'straight-thrus.'

if the C-17 isn't there to meet them, this complicates matters. do we have enough beds in mcmurdo (our maximum bed space is 1100)? do we have shuttle operations to support transporting them from the airfield back to town? if we're going to keep them at the airfield and have them wait for the eventual arrival of the C-17, do we have meals for them at the airfield galley? what about their baggage, if they do come into town -- does it stay on the baggage pallets or come off?

the whole business of sending people off the continent (redeploying them), whether from mcmurdo or south pole or a field camp, is a tricky one. at the end of any given season, there are a finite number of flights that have been agreed-upon, long before, by the military and the NSF. with each flight costing hundreds of thousands of dollars of USAP money, these numbers are not taken lightly. the aircraft have finite numbers of seat pallets on them. this year, in contrast to previous years in which a C-17 held 140 seats, we only have 126 seats per there is a shortage of usable seat pallets due to the war in iraq.

this means that each space is even more coveted, and flight manifests are even harder to build. hundreds of people have to redeploy over a three-week time period, and every single one of those people believes wholeheartedly that their redeployment date is a sacred, untouchable thing.

there's a definite science to manifesting people according to their priority level. top-level priority is any medevac. this brings its own set of problems. a medevac usually requires an attendant in the form of a flight nurse or flight surgeon. and if the patient is on a litter, that takes up the space of four seats. so a total of five people can potentially be bumped if a medevac needs to get out.

the next-top level of priority is someone who has been terminated. for obvious reasons, a recent termination is a potentially dangerous (at the worst) or mischievous (at the least) person. for this reasons, terminations have to be timed carefully, especially in light of possible weather or mechanical delays.

next in line is a patient transport, which is someone who is being sent north for medical reasons that are not dire. for example: earlier in the season, delaney took a soccer ball in the eye at close range. a week later, the pain was gone, but his vision was still blurry, so he went north to get a second opinion from an opthalmologist there.

next would be someone who has not been terminated, but has resigned voluntarily. getting this type of person off-continent is still a priority -- the longer they're around, the more resources they use (to put it in a mildly heartless way), without being productive community members in return. supposedly, several seasons ago, someone quit during winter but, due to flight schedules, remained on-station. he walked down the main hallway, borrowed a hammer from the housing office, returned to the galley, and attacked a co-worker with it. he was later apprehended back in the main hallway swinging the hammer and whistling 'mary had a little lamb.' ever since, resignations have been sent away as quickly as possible.

as far as those who rank at the bottom of the totem pole, there's a science to that too. when planning redeployment, everyone is asked to designate themselves as one of the following categories of traveler:

first available (FAA), which means just that -- put me on the next available flight home.
actual with flight priority -- I know what date I want to travel home, but it's not immediate. and in case of a delay in getting to christchurch, I want the actual flight to take precedence over total time spent in christchurch.
actual with hotel priority -- I know what date I want to travel home, and in case of a delay, I want the number of nights in the hotel to take precedence over the flight date.
open -- I have no idea what I'm going to do yet. I'll figure it out once I get to new zealand.
the most bumpable pax are those who work for the contractor -- raytheon polar services, as opposed to a grantee or someone who works for the NSF -- and who have designated themselves in open status. by definition, they're undecided, and so are the most expendable.

due to the fact that one can be bumped at any time due to pax prioritization, mechanical difficulties with the aircraft, or the threat of bad weather, USAP participants are urged from day one not to make any kind of expensive or hard-to-change onward travel plans. nevertheless, someone always does. a woman in the supply department was told by her supervisor upon signing her contract not to do this. she was told again repeatedly over the course of the season. so what did she do? once she learned of her redeployment date, she booked a flight from christchurch back to the states and then on to frankfurt, germany. for the next day. predictably enough, she got bumped to a later flight due to overcrowding -- and now has to eat the cost of making changes. silly woman!

yesterday afternoon we had a partial solar eclipse. the moon slid in front of the sun for several minutes. the skies and the water in winter quarters bay darkened, everyone rushed to a window or door to look, and I think I heard a dog howl.


knitting pretty.

I've been making pompom hats for people now that the craft fair is over and I can devote more time to individual projects. here's michelle, one of our dining attendants, wearing one of my recent creations.

and a week after I got to go to the south pole, D got to go too -- on a morale trip! never one to sit idly, he made sure to take his current knitting project with him on the plane -- a scarf knit on the diagonal.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

the swedish are coming!

last month, the swedish icebreaker Oden steamed into the ross sea en route to mcmurdo station. for the last two years, the swedes have been hired by the NSF as the primary icebreakers, whose job is to open a channel in the seasonal sea ice surrounding mcmurdo so that the annual fuel tanker and resupply vessel can get to the station. this job used to be filled by the US coast guard with one of their two icebreakers - the Polar Sea and the Polar Star. however, there are myriad costs built into the price of hiring the coast guard vessels -- for example, upkeep and maintenance of the gargantuan ships (compared to the small Oden) and training costs for the crew members, who are required to participate in things like homeland security training. the price of hiring the swedes is but a fraction of renting the coast guard. like shopping for furniture at IKEA, getting the Oden to break ice is a good deal -- neat, stylish and practical.

on board the ship, along with approximately twenty salty crew members, were about twenty-five scientists. these scientists were along for the ride to perform 'science of opportunity' on the way to mcmurdo, and once they got within helo distance of our station, the plan was to helicopter them off and send them north with their scientific samples and data via C-17.

because these grantees (and one cook who had a medical condition) would be coming off the ship and spending some time in mcmurdo prior to the flight north, they needed to be briefed on certain information, just like any other arriving pax. every arrival brief needs to contain the following USAP tidbits:

what number to call in an emergency (911, just like in the states)
touching or harassing the wildife is a big no-no
no smoking indoors unless you're in a designated smoking area
you must have your laptop screened by the IT department for viruses before you plug in
don't download copyrighted information or anything offensive once you do
don't be a poopyhands -- please wash your hands before going into the galley
etc., etc.

I must have been living right, because the day before the Oden was to burp its scientists out onto our shores, I got a phone call that I was headed to the ship via helicopter to perform their arrival briefing.

I hurriedly doctored my existing powerpoint presentation (weeding out a lot of the stuff that is only pertinent if you're staying at mcmurdo for an extended length of time) and ran home to put on my ECW gear and grab D's camera. the NSF station manager had asked me to get some shots of the ice channel from the air, and delaney has a sweet pentax that would be just the thing.

the Oden had already broken a channel about ten miles into the sea ice and had stopped to let us board. there were several of us -- the point of contact for vessel operations, two guys from the science cargo department, two guys from the hazardous waste department, a helitech, and me. in addition to scientists, the ship would be offloading scientific samples, waste and lots of gear. mark and doug would ensure that the haz waste was properly contained and labeled. same for michael and keith with the scientific cargo. jena would weigh all the passengers and calculate the flight load of each helo trip. and once my arrival brief was delivered, I was cheap labor along for the ride.

we whup-whupped out to where it sat perched on the edge of the channel and touched down delicately next to it. they had set out a little ladder for us to climb up to the deck.

we got out of the helicopter, walked over frozen sea ice and clambered up in our bunny boots. a blond middle-aged woman welcomed us aboard and showed us where to stash our snowy boots and hang up our coats. the floor was smooth parquet and the lighting was warm and homey. there were still christmas decorations up, including a christmas tree in the galley. the floor felt smooth and clean under our stocking feet and there were good smells coming from the kitchen. we would be there for lunch, and were informed that today was spaghetti day.

some of the framed prints -- of leaves and flowers and trees -- hanging on the walls looked vaguely familiar. I realized that I had seen them on sale at IKEA in seattle.

a few minutes later, all the scientists had been mustered in the galley. I introduced myself and the reason I was about to make them sit through a short presentation, and launched right into it.

my spiel only took thirty minutes, but it would be several hours before I could board a helicopter back to mcmurdo. there were only two helicopters allocated to shuttle scientists, all their gear and baggage, and us back to mcmurdo, and they were going to have to make several trips. so we relaxed, ate some spaghetti, marveled at the cleanliness of the ship (the kitchen was so clean you could walk around in it barefoot), helped schlep baggage out to the deck so it could be lowered over the side with a net and crane, and took photos.

by mid-afternoon, everyone but the mcmurdoites had been ferried back to mcmurdo. we climbed aboard, strapped on our helmets, plugged in our radios, and lifted off. the pilot let me sit up front this time, and dipped this way and that so I could get views of the seals lounging on the sea ice.

just another day at work.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

playing in the snow.

a few pictures from this year's icestock, the annual outdoor music festival.

Friday, February 01, 2008

a fun picture of our bike rack from a snowstorm a couple of weeks ago.