My First Antarctic Adventure – Part II

“Part II – TApproaching McMurdohe Ice”

Copyright 1999 – Jack W. Cummings

The Pacific Northwest weather in the spring time reminds me a lot of the weather in New Zealand in the spring – cool, sometimes freezing nights, and warm almost shirt sleeve days. Nothing that would prepare us for the conditions we were to experience when we arrived on “The Ice”.

The time arrived, the weather folks had given us the green light and we were loaded aboard the Antarctic Express for our final leg. We all had to carry our seabags filled with winter clothing on the plane with us, as near the end of the flight we would be “suiting up” for our arrival at Williams Field Ice runway, situated on McMurdo Sound. It was a jovial lot that boarded that day, I can’t remember what part of the day it was, as that was not a consideration at take off. When we landed we would be in 24 hour daylight conditions. About the only picture I can recall was the C-124 Globemaster cargo planes that were taking off before us. As they taxied into position for takeoff, one of the crewman was standing in an opening in the top of the fuselage with a 360 degree view of his plane. His job was to insure there was proper clearance between his plane and other vehicles on the taxiway. If you have never seen a C-124, they are hard to describe. C-124, or “Old Shaky” as it was affectionately known, featured “clamshell” loading doors and hydraulic ramps in the nose and an elevator under the aft fuselage. The disconcerting part of their appearance, were the stubby wings. I could not visualize one of them even getting airborne. A year later I would experience first hand what they were like to fly in – empty and fully loaded!

Our take off must have been uneventful as I remember nothing of it. The captain did advise us when we reached the point of no return, which meant the next time we touched terra firma, be it a smooth or crash landing, it would be somewhere halfway in between the south island of New Zealand and the Antarctic Continent or its surrounding ocean. I think it was at this point that we were all advised to get into our cold weather gear. Sometime after that announcement, the captain announced that they were getting ready to engage the superchargers on the Super-Connie’s engines to allow us to climb to a higher altitude. I swear this operation must have been a cruel joke perpetrated by the engineers of these engines, because I can distinctly remember hearing the engines STOP for a moment (read here an eternity) as the superchargers were engaged! Well you can imagine what body functions took place during that maneuver.

Mt Erebus So there we all sat, sweating in our full blizzard gear, wondering what next? After an eternity (actual – not perceived) we could see MT Erebus, standing 3,796.6 m (12,448 ft) high, on Ross Island, in the distance. This is the only active volcano in Antarctica. I just looked at the origination of the word Erebus and here is what I found: “Erebus, The dark region of the underworld through which the dead must pass before they reach Hades”. Probably named by one of the early Antarctic explorers who had experienced more than one long Antarctic winter night, and figured that would be his only exit from, as Robert Falcon Scott was to put it later before he died, “this terrible place”. I was soon to have my taste of what he was referring to.

As our plane descended, the ice runway suddenly disappeared in ground (ice) fog. We could see the tops of the buildings and we could see the base at McMurdo in the distance, but where was that RUNWAY? After a couple of “go-arounds” the pilot finally advised us that we had no other choice but to land. (More body functions out of control). They say that every landing that you walk away from is a good one. Yes indeed, and I was never so happy to “walk away” from the one I experienced next. Everyone who has ever flown on a commercial airliner has experienced what it is like to fly through a cloud, as I had done many times prior to that. But there is nothing quite like flying into a cloud that is about ten feet off the surface! This was before the invention of ground radar. After what seemed like FOREVER we felt the wheels touch down. The runway was about as smooth as a gravel road in the back country of the Colorado Mountains and it seemed to go on forever – and then we stopped! All of us together – in one piece. “Welcome to The Ice!”, and as the door to the cabin was opened I was so thankful for my “blizzard” clothing.

Ed’s. Note  On 8 October 1970 the following accident report was filed at McMurdo Ice runway:’

“Weather predictions were favorable for the Antarctic McMurdo Station as the Super Constellation departed Christchurch (CHC), New Zealand. By the time the C-121 arrived, visibility had deteriorated to zero. Blowing snow made the runway invisible. On the second attempt to land the right main landing gear hit a snow bank and separated. Then the right wing broke off, with the airplane sliding through the snow.”  Almost been there – whew!

(next week, “Part III – Life at McMurdo Station”. Although we were in Antarctica, we still had one more journey (adventure) before our arrival at Cape Hallett, and our winter home).

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