Even on a good day, polar flying is never simple


By Jack Williams, USATODAY.com


The daring April 24-25, 2001 flight to rescue an ill doctor at the South Pole focused the world's attention the dangers of polar flying.




Two LC-130s at the airport on the ice near McMurdo. Clouds hide the lower parts of Mount Erebus in the background.

Josh Landis, National Science Foundation



While the hazards of that flight exceeded those of normal travel in Antarctica, no one would ever call flying there routine, even in the summer when the sun is up 24 hours a day and the weather is on its best behavior.

Pilots and other members of flight crews have to always be ready to land on ice they can't see because blowing snow has created a "white out." Everyone who boards a plane to go to Antarctica or to go from one place to another on the continent has to be dressed to survive the cold and prepared to use the survival equipment all planes carry.

Most people taking part in the National Science Foundation's U.S. Antarctic Program go there from Christchurch, New Zealand. The 2,400-mile flight to the McMurdo Station is just about as long as a flight from Portland, Ore., to Jacksonville, Fla., but distance is about the only thing it has in common with a northwest to southeast flight across the USA.

An hour or so after an airplane is past the southern tip of New Zealand, it's over the storm-tossed, cold Southern Ocean for all but the last 700 or so miles. This last leg is over Antarctica's unpopulated ice. There's no place to land and no place making regular reports of weather along the route.

For most of the October into February Antarctic research season, flights are on LC-130s, which are ski-equipped versions of the C-130 turboprop transports, which take about eight hours to fly to McMurdo. The New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing, which took over all Antarctic flying from the Navy in February 1999, flies the LC-130s to and from Antarctica and between stations on the continent

During the Northern Hemisphere summer, the 109th supports National Science Foundation projects in the Arctic, especially in Greenland. The 109th also trains at the Raven Skiway, an abandoned Cold War radar warning station, on Greenland's ice sheet.

About half way through the journey, the airplane reaches the point of safe return. Up to now, the pilots had the option of turning back to Christchurch. Once past the point of safe return, the airplane is going to land or crash in Antarctica because there isn't enough fuel to return to New Zealand.

If the weather outlook is for conditions that would make landing at McMurdo unsafe, the flight will "boomerang;" that is, turn around and return to New Zealand before reaching the point of safe return. When this happens, passengers spend eight or more hours on an anything-but-luxurious LC-130 only to end up back in Christchurch.

If an airplane arrives at McMurdo to find the weather unsuitable for landing, the first choice is to fly to a field camp or even the South Pole, 850 miles away. Both would offer groomed skiways (snow runways) marked with flags, on-site weather observations, warm buildings to shelter the plane's crew and passengers, and a galley with cooks who'd be happy to feed their unexpected guests.

But, if the airplane doesn't have fuel to reach either place or the weather is too bad there also, the only choice is a "whiteout landing,"

Col. Graham Pritchard, who retired in 2000 as commanding officer of the 109th, says "the whiteout landing procedure allows us to safely put the airplane down on the surface even under zero-zero weather," that is zero visibility and zero ceiling.

The whiteout landing area is several square miles of the Ross Ice Shelf near McMurdo that's been surveyed and found to be free of crevasses and also to be relatively smooth.

Pritchard says that during a whiteout landing:

The navigator makes sure the airplane goes to the correct location and that the wind doesn't push it out of the area.

The pilot lines the airplane up into the wind and begins descending at a steady rate of 200 feet per minute. The pilot "keeps the plane stabilized with the wings level and lets it fly down and settle on the snow."

The copilot "backs up pilot on instruments and watches the rate of descent."

The flight engineer, who sits between the pilot and copilot, monitors all the aircraft systems;

The loadmasters, like the passengers, "are holding on tight and are strapped in good and snug."

Pritchard says that the airplane's radar altimeter "shows you within a couple of feet when you're about to touch down. It's no great surprise, and yet, that first moment when the skis touch does surprise you no matter what. The pilot has to be very careful not to jerk the yoke back when you feel the skis touch down. It's really hard not to jerk the yoke back and pull yourself back into the air."

If the pilot does pull back, the airplane will zoom up, and then probably come down hard. It could even begin bouncing across the snow.

Although he, like all Antarctic pilots, regularly practiced making whiteout landings, Pritchard says he never had to make a real one in about 30 years of flying LC-130s in the Arctic and Antarctic.

In December 1997, however, two Navy LC-130s made whiteout landings at McMurdo, one 10 minutes after the other. One had arrived from Christchurch, the other from the South Pole. In the past, crews and passengers aboard an airplane that's made a whiteout landing might have to wait hours until visibility was good enough for vehicles reach the airplane and begin taking the passengers and crew to shelter.

But after the December 1997 landing, members of the McMurdo Search and Rescue Team, in tracked vehicles equipped with global positioning satellite navigation systems and radar, quickly located the airplanes and began ferrying passengers to shelter. Even with the navigation system and radar, however, they needed to make several trips meant the last of the passengers didn't reach shelter until six hours after the airplane landed.

This is why passengers struggle into long underwear, polar fleece jackets and pants, wind pants, insulated boots, and parkas in 70-degree temperatures in Christchurch before boarding an airplane for Antarctica. They might need this clothing if the weather forces their airplane to land somewhere other than their destination.

(This story was originally written in January 1999 based on the writer's experiences in Antarctica. It was updated, with changes in 2001 and again in 2004.)