Flight to Antarctica not exactly first-class

Posted: Sunday, November 26, 2000

And we think flying into Juneau is bad, with the plane circling, circling, then finally landing in Sitka, or Ketchikan. Try flying to Antarctica. Then try and try again.

The weather has to be perfect to land on the ice runway floating atop the Ross Sea in Antarctica. Visibility of at least three miles is needed for the massive C141 military plane loaded with 68 passengers. The plane, older than me and riddled with tiny cracks, has to be working. The stars have to be in alignment. You just can't add any risks to the already dangerous proposition of flying 2,357 miles over a very cold ocean to land on a hunk of ice and rock, with no other airports the entire way.

Though New Zealand was warm and green, in the full bloom of springtime, I was impatient to leave. The day after arriving from Los Angeles I checked in at the International Antarctica Center, a complex of white buildings rising from the edge of the Christchurch airport tarmac. I was given two orange duffel bags already packed full of clothes. It was a little like Christmas in the communal dressing room with six other women, all opening our bags and spreading new clothes across the floor. I pulled out a red down parka with a fur ruff, already patched and stained; a Gore-Tex wind bib with zippers everywhere except where a woman would really need them; a pair of white bunny boots; two pairs of heavy long underwear tops and bottoms; a fleece jacket and pants; two pairs of Carhartt pants and two white t-shirts; fur-trimmed gauntlets to go over the four layers of gloves and mittens, inner gloves and work mittens; six pairs of tube socks that slip to my ankles minutes after I put them on; a neck gaiter; balaclava, hat and snow goggles.

With everything on, I could only waddle. After making sure the clothes fit, we were told a shuttle would pick us up at 5:45 a.m. for our flight to McMurdo Station, the largest of three U.S. science research facilities in Antarctica. Instead I was woken at 4 a.m. by a knock on the door. "Sorry to wake you, but the flights been delayed four hours," a man told me in a rich New Zealand accent. So I went for a run through the botanical gardens, visited the museum, returned to discover the flight was delayed again, this time until afternoon. When the time came around you guessed it this time delayed until morning.

Saturday I made it to the airport before the delays began. People lay on the lawn, barefoot with their bunny boots beside them, wind pants unzipped past the knees. Others rested their heads on the orange duffel bags. Many of them had been waiting to fly for three days, spending hours in the airport as flights were delayed and delayed. If this was a commercial flight passengers would be yelling at the stewards, asking for their money back. Instead they cracked jokes.

Finally we boarded the gray C141. Women got on last so we'd be near the front of the plane, where the crew toilet is. It has a seat and a door. The men had to use a can behind a curtain in the back, or wait five-and-a-half hours.

There were no windows, no overhead storage. We were buckled to canvas and webbing benches that stretched the length of the plane, so close tall people's knees brush those of the person facing them. For once I'm grateful to be just 5 foot 5.

We were handed brown paper bags, the size of small grocery bags, shortly after boarding.

Our flight lunch: two squashed cucumber, cheese and ham sandwiches, water, juice, two crushed bags of potato chips, a fruiti bar, two hard oranges and a cookie. I ate half a sandwich, minus the ham, and felt queasy.

But the plane didn't take off. We were waiting, and waiting, with the hum of engines like a hairdryer in the ear, a stifling heat growing slowly thicker with smells of sweaty bodies twitching in their seats. Something's wrong with the engines, we're told, and will take at least an hour to fix. A few passengers unbuckled and stood on their seat. Most sat resigned with a book or let their head fall back against the red webbing that makes the seat backs, close their eyes and try to slip away to a place where the air doesn't smell of strangers and you don't have to shout to be heard.

Two hours later the entire plane began to throb. Somebody cheered as the door closed. Stale air, perfumed with exhaust both human and diesel is what we're left with. The view of gray metal and tired faces didn't change, but we sensed a motion, that the shaking had taken a direction. There were the rising whines associated with a plane preparing to take off and faces set in their resignation dared to open eyes, smile, lift an eyebrow in expectation. "We may just go to the South Pole," said Penny Rowe, a scientist sitting across from me.

Then the plane tilted upward and we all slid down toward the tail. The man next to me grabbed the metal bar above our heads as a brake. The plane shook hard to release its ties to the ground and the hours, days, years of waiting were over.

With earplugs in, all I hear besides the engine is my own head. My chewing reverberates hollowly. If I speak it's like loudspeakers echoing in an empty stadium. Yawning opens a wind tunnel through my ears.

I read my book, made faces at Penny across the aisle, got up to use the bathroom, just to see what it's like. It's like the bathroom in a ship with scarred metal thickly painted white and a broken sink full of moist towelettes.

Bored, I ate the chocolate cookie. Time was flying by though, only an hour left I figured, checking my watch. The Air Force guy stood to make an announcement and I'm alert, listening expectantly for talk of descent.

We are half an hour from McMurdo, he says, but the clouds are even nearer, hanging right over the ice runway. There's less than a mile visibility and the plane needs at least three miles to land, so we're turning around. It will be four more hours back to Christchurch.

I started to laugh at what must be a joke, but everyone looked as though they'd been clubbed.

No wonder they gave us such a big lunch.

Rolf, a National Geographic writer, was clearly annoyed, his mouth a terse line. It's faster by boat he says and this isn't fodder for a story. But the failed flight is part of life in Antarctica. They even have a term for flights that go most of the way there, then end up back where they started boomerangs. The C141 carries just enough fuel to get to McMurdo and refuel, or reach the point of safe return and boomerang, which we did. The pilot can't just decide to keep going and hope things will clear up because there's no place to land between Christchurch and Antarctica.

One man boomeranged three times in a row. I think that would cause fear of flying and claustrophobia, to say nothing of air rage. There was none of that on this flight. More people tried to sleep. Penny typed a note to me on her Palm Pilot. We passed it back and forth, playing 20 questions and laughing at our childish antics. Anything to pass the time.

Shortly after midnight we landed back where we'd started, having flown the distance of a trip from Seattle to Chicago and back. We're told to be back in nine hours for another try.

Before I can dream, I'm strapped back into the canvas seat. The weather was perfect in McMurdo, we were told, but a five-day storm was on its way. So it was then, or another week. This time I knew what to do. I made a lunchroom trade, exchanging juice for an extra chocolate, discarded the smashed sandwiches and rubbery muffin, took off my bunny boots before they caused my feet to sweat and stuffed everything under the seat. I'm not the only one better prepared this flight. The woman next to me brought half a pizza, a sign I'm not the only one who found the lunch inedible. Claire Steffens, the Anchorage lawyer, crocheted a gray scarf with New Zealand wool she'd just bought. Another woman did needlepoint.

After almost six hours in the air we were told to put on all our cold-weather gear and the cabin chilled. The plane nosed down so gently we couldn't tell exactly when it stopped being airborne and was on the Ice. After the dim interior of the plane the world appeared blinding white, even with sunglasses on. It was nearly midnight, but felt like morning. The sky was a faded blue, like old denims, with a few patches worn to white clouds. Everything else was white, like a movie scene of heaven. Stark mountains ringed us in the distance. I could imagine a chorus of angels greeting us.

Instead there was a bus with 5-foot-tall tires and lettering reading "Ivan the Terra Bus." It drove us across the flat expanse of the ice shelf to a clutter of metal buildings tucked in front of a mountain. I don't know whether it was delirium or excitement, but I didn't feel stiff or tired from the two days of flying.

Kristan Hutchison is a Juneau Empire reporter on leave for four months to work as a

janitor in Antarctica. Her column will appear every other Sunday in the Empire. Her e-mail on

"The Ice" is sabbatkr@mcmurdo.gov. A Web site with more details about Antarctica and her experiences

there is at http://www.ptialaska.net/~crayola/antarctica.html.

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