Operating In McMurdo

The heliport at McMurdo Station. Two Bell 212s and two A-Stars from PHI, a 212 from Scott Base, and three Coast Guard HH-65As are visible. The empty pad is used for maintenance.
This place has been described as a cross between a mining camp and a hippie commune. There is truth in both descriptions, with the rough and tumble buildings and dirt roads being inhabited by some of the most interesting people on the planet. I tend to like people that are a little unorthodox. Just talk to some of my friends and you'll see what I mean.

For an aviator you could extend the analogy to say that it is a cross between a 1920s aerodrome and a combat field camp. There is no control tower, no special FAA regulations to worry about, and things change so often the phrase "go with the flow" is uttered many times each day. Passengers should never expect to come home on the same helicopter in which they left, and "be sure to take your field survival gear in case you don't come home tonight!"

Everything you do here is influenced in some way by the harsh environment. The dolphins, normally washed every day to keep corrosion down, can't be washed at all because water would freeze the flight controls. The aircraft can't be hangared and are tied down and covered when not flying. The ramp area is not paved, so the danger to the rotors from flying pebbles is a constant threat.

The harshness of the weather does have some positive aspects, however. The cold temperatures are perfect for the jet engines, and the resulting high performance seems to make them fly like completely different aircraft. There is no salt water corrosion to worry about, since all the salt water is frozen over. The air is so dry and cold, making normally demanding maneuvers much easier.

The Mechs doing weekly maintenance while parked at pad A4.
Besides the effects of the weather, the rest of the environment offers unique challenges. We equip the helicopters with skis - snowshoes really - to make landing on snow and ice possible. We have landed lightly on the snow and stepped out, only to find ourselves sunk up to our waists!

There are often no prepared landing zones, so we are forced to get creative. We have used rocks to line a square area as a landing pad, used storm flag markers attached to bamboo poles as makeshift windsocks, even poured cherry cool-aid on a pile of snow to make a safe landing pad visible. Whatever it takes to get the job done is sometimes just a brainstorm away.

One good example is the landing zone at the base in McMurdo. After having several tail rotor blades dented by a randomly flying rock, we needed a way to make our pad area safer. A bunch of old C-130 pallets linked together did the trick. One field landing area has a big nylon net laid out to suppress the rocks. Another has a tiny platform built out of plywood and 2x4's and painted with a non-skid coating.

The helos can be equipped with skis for landing on snow or ice.

Landing pad A4 with C-130 pallets behind to protect the tail.

The lower pads after a storm, Ob hill in the background.

You can almost always see Mt. Erebus.
Our main missions are ship and science support. We ferry cargo and people to the ship and provide them other assistance, such as scouting out cracks or "leads" in the ice. We can deliver cargo by carrying it internally or as a "sling load" under the belly.

Science missions take us far into the wilds of Antarctica to help with a great range of experiments. Some involve penguin studies, or geological rock sampling, or maybe ice coring. We've flown people looking for neutrinos, or sampling the earth's magnetic flux. Once in a while we fly VIPs so they can see first hand the rigors of operating in and around McMurdo.

Running in to hook up a "sling load" going to the icebreaker.

Landing aboard the icebreaker to drop off passengers.

We operate out of a temporary base made up of "fish huts". Each hut has desks, chairs, a telephone, heater, and radios.

The skis keep the helicopter on top while the people wallow.

Mechs getting ready to hot-refuel an incoming helo.
The days are sometimes long, especially when there is bad weather and none of the flights go. But when you do fly you are guaranteed, more than anywhere else, to see or do something you have never seen or done before.

Just another day at the office.

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Page posted 01/20/2002