This blog post will be somewhat long for the norm. Today was a very action-packed day and there are a lot of details I’ll try to put into this post to give a feel for how awesome todays mission to Cape Hallett was. Enjoy!
Today my team was Primary Pax (Passengers) on a 4-hour Twin Otter flight to Cape Hallett. Our mission was to service a non-transmitting AWS station. Cape Hallett is located along on a small peninsula along northern cost of Antarctica, near the edge of the Transantarctic Mountains. Even though the weather didn’t look very permittable from the models last night, we still reported to Crary Phase II just in case things changed. But first, I needed to load up on food for the day. The only food in the field is the food you bring with you, so it’s definitely best to leave on a full stomach and pack a lunch/dinner. Once in galley, I grabbed breakfast; scrambled eggs with sausage, hash browns, and a glass of OJ. This is pretty typical McMurdo breakfast food. I began checking the flight schedule screen for our flight. I was looking for KBX (Ken Borek Air) which initially was listed as TBD. Around 6:45am the schedule updated, and my flight read as ACTIVATED. ACTIVATED meant I needed to finish up in the galley immediately and head back to Crary Phase II for pickup at 7:30am. There, I met up with my PI Lee Welhouse, and two scientists from the Antarctic Precipitation System team: Dr. Scott Landolt and Dr. Mark Seefeldt. After putting on our ECW gear and packing our equipment in our shuttle, we were taxied off in a shuttle to Williams Field. Williams Field (aka. Willie Field) is one of two main airfields closest to McMurdo and the Kiwi Scott Base, the other being Phoenix Airfield. Approaching our Twin Otter, we passed three LC-130’s parked in a line along the runway, and a DC3-T Basler parked near a service building. The Basler is a seriously awesome plane to look at. The Basler is a turboprop converted and airframe reinforced Douglas DC-3, an old WW2-era commercial airliner & utility aircraft. In Antarctica, the Baslers are fitted with skis beside it’s landing gear to allow for ice/snow landings. We were dropped off next to our Twin Otter, which was already fueled and ready to go. Twin turbopropped and lightweight, the Twin Otter’s high rate of climb, and short take off / landing capability make it an excellent candidate for small fixed wing team operations. Unlike the Basler, the Twin Otter can easily take off and land on ungroomed areas such as ice shelves. After loading up a small collapsible ladder, a couple duffle bags, survival kits, tools, spare parts, and our gear, we took off. Initially there was some turbulence but once we broke through the boundary layer things began to smooth out.
We were expected to arrive at a fuel station in Tera Nova in about an hour and a half. Initially, we flew over the Ross Island Ice Shelve. It was a very different change of scene to McMurdo. Off the right side of the plane (looking northwest), the area was very desolate looking, almost like an abyss of ice. The only discernable patterns were the scrapes in the snow that wind took onto the surface and the occasional ice chunk. The skies and air were clear, giving vision to the distant horizon which was almost all flatness. The plains to the right transitioned into more rugged terrain, then a mixture of small crevasses, hills and rocky islands dispersed through-out the ice tundra. Next, we flew over a rugged coastline where the ice shelf was breaking off into sea. Large circular chunks of ice could be seen floating about. The chunks became smaller and smaller as we cleared distance from the shelf, eventually opening up to the Ross Sea. I was slightly nervous flying over frigid open water in such a small plane. The fact was that if something were to go wrong and we went down – we would basically all be dead no matter what. At the same time though, at least we’re in Antarctica living the dream.
As we started to re-approach the mainland/ice shelf, things became super photographic. Off the left side of the plane, the peaks and valleys of the Transantarctic Mountains could be seen. The Transantarctic Mountains are a massive mountain range dividing East from West Antarctica, extending along the Ross Sea, to nearly the most northern end of Antarctica. We flew along this landscape until we arrived at Tera Nova, an air strip / fuel station near the Italian base, Mario Zucchelli Station. Once landing, we hopped off the plane where we were greeted by the Italians operating a fuel truck and several vehicles. After 20 minutes of chatting and photo taking, we exchanged Madison College / UW-Madison stickers with them and were on our way again.
Once we took off and levelled at altitude, I took the opportunity to crawl over our equipment and up to cockpit. In front of us, I could see more mountain range incoming. We were cruising along at 135 knots, at about 5800 feet. After a short interview with the pilot and co-pilot of the controls and gauges, I sat back down and closed my eyes for a bit. We still had two hours to go. 30 minutes later, I woke up to my ears popping. I looked out the window and realized we were starting to increase our altitude, and we were horizontally getting closer and closer to the mountains. We began making way up a cliff, then into a mountain valley where we were skimming across the air only a thousand feet or so above the rocks below. On both sides of the plane, the mountain peaks towered above. Shears of ice, smooth glistening snow, and deep blue crevasses covered the surface below. It was absolutely unreal at how beautiful the scene was. All of the environment had to have been completely untouched by man, if only being only the product of the forces of nature. No camera could do this place justice.
Twenty minutes later the valley opened up into a much wider area of sea ice, with mountains and cliffs diverging far to our right and left. In front of us we could once again see a large ice shelf extending as far into the Ross Sea. We passed over a peninsula where I recognized the area from satellite imagery that I looked at last week. We had finally arrived at Cape Hallett. Taking a closer look, I could make out six tents and a small grey structure near the cliffside. We circled the area three times, making low 10-20ft passes on the second and third rounds. The pilots were observing the surface of the sea ice looking for a smooth place to land. The landing was surprisingly smooth. How little space needed for the Twin Otter to land in is pretty remarkable. We stopped near a glacier about a half mile from the weather station.
On landing, a man in a green jacket on a snowmobile parked about 100 feet away and began speaking on his radio. We weren’t really sure who it was at the time, since the recent satellite imagery we had seen hadn’t showed the camp. As we were unloading our cargo, he drove up to us and we introduced ourselves. He was very kind, and part of a Korean research team who was studying penguin behavior on the peninsula. Cape Hallett is home to an Adélie Penguin colony, medium sized predatory birds called Skuas, and a diverse mix of lichens and mosses. The area is protected under the Antarctic Treaty as an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA), and requires special permits to enter. As we walked towards the station approximately a half mile away, we kept our distance to the rocky peninsula where the penguins were hanging out. Even so, some of them were still curious and meandered over to check us out. As Scott had said, the Adélies have a very inquisitive expression about them; they would wander up to within 20 feet of us, turn to their side with their flappers out, watch us for a few moments, then turn around and casually waddle way. They seemed to have no fear at all, probably because they have no natural predators on land. It seemed like they were just curious and thinking “what are those things?”. I suppose they are just used to never seeing anything except fish, seals and skuas.
The weather station at Cape Hallett had been failing to transmit its data since last year. After inspecting the exterior of the tower, we adjusted the angles of a couple sensors to their normal positions and opened up the protective box housing the CR1000 system inside. The CR1000 is a robust datalogger manufactured by Campbell Scientific, which is the heart of the weather tower system. This device is responsible for taking weather measurements from sensors, storing the data, and ultimately transmitting the data via an Iridium satellite transmitter.
We then began troubleshooting the system. We first interfaced with the CR1000 by opening a comm port and monitoring its programming. Nothing appeared to be wrong there. We then interfaced with the Iridium modem. By sending the modem the command “SBDIX=” and giving it dummy data, we can tell the modem to send the dummy data to the satellite “GSS” and also receive a status byte in return. By reading this status byte, we can look up the code in a datasheet to determine if the transmission was successful, or if some fault occurred. It gave us a “34” which meant the radio was not enabling. In response, we sent it an “AT*R1” to force enable its radio. The device then locked up and wouldn’t respond to further commands. We tried resetting the power to the device, and enabling the radio again, but these attempts were unsuccessful. Lee then made the call to replace the modem with a new one and retry a transmission. We hooked up a new modem and sent another SBDIX. It didn’t work initially. I then mentioned we should try clearing the modems buffer. We sent it an “AT+SBDD” to modems mobile buffer. Then, after another transmission retry, we were successful. We then packed up and prepared to leave. We were running low on time, and unfortunately didn’t have time to sit down with the Koreans, but we were still able to give them stickers and wish each other well.
After loading up, we took off back to Tera Nova for fuel. Once back in Tera Nova, the pilots informed us that some weather was brewing to our south and was going to hit McMurdo. We could see the dark clouds and low visibility from the airstrip, which made us slightly apprehensive. We fueled up and watched a Basler land on the ice airstrip, then took off for McMurdo. The way back was hands-down the roughest plane ride I’ve ever had in my life. With 35mph gusts head-on and up/down drafts tossing our plane, our hour and a half ride ended up being two hours. Both Mark and Lee became sick, and even now I still have the spins like I just spent a day on the scrambler at six flags. We were happy to eventually land, and very thankful that we have skillful pilots who know how to handle those situations.