Antarctic Medevac 2013: Take 2

May 14, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Only 18 days had passed since the second last plane of the winter took off from Antarctica before the third last plane landed in the dark winter night.  It was just about enough time for much of the equipment to get put away from the last flight.


I walked outside last Friday morning to gale-force winds and blowing snow thinking that no plane would ever land in this weather.  I was not alone with those thoughts, but things were still set to bring a plane in later that day.  The other half of the town was out at the airfield putting the finishing touches on the runway. The weather forecast called for decreasing winds and increasing visibility.  I could look up through the blowing snow and see stars—there wasn't a cloud in the sky—but looking straight ahead there were moments when it was hard to see 100 feet in front of me to the next building in town.

These subsequent medevac flights have taken on a life of their own because of how close together they were, the people that go out and come in on them, and the mystery that theytry to shroud them in.  They have even gotten nicknames: Medevac 1.0 now known as WHOOPS (Why Have Only One Plane Sent) and Medevac 2.0 has been dubbed OOF (Operation Old Flame because of some of the passengers arriving.)  


After a four-hour delay I fired up the Hagglund to drive out to Pegasus Airfield.  Since the Hagglund has tracks it was decided to use it to help transport people and baggage out since the road wasn't in the best shape for normal wheeled vehicles.  I enlisted the help of two others to help me open the giant doors (acting as sails in the wind) of the Science Cargo building, where we park the Hagglund in the winter.  After the vehicle was warmed up and moved outside it only took one person to close the doors.  The wind had stopped.  We could stand outside and look at the stars without goggles and a face mask.  In a matter of minutes a terrible ground storm turned into a cold serene night.  I say night, but it was only 2pm. 


The C-17 was set to land at 6pm.  Everyone was poised and ready next to the runway when we got the call to turn off our headlights.  All that was left was the glare of the runway lights pointing to the north and the distant lights of McMurdo and Scott Base.  The stars of the Milky Way were in full view in the cold clear air.  By this point in the evening only one cloud had developed to the north—directly in the flight path.  Far in the distance above the clouds I could make out a faint flashing red light.  There was a different type of anticipation for this flight than there was for the last one.  For WHOOPS there was the excitement of a plane coming in and the dread of why and how the plane was coming in.  But OOF carried a different excitement with it.  It carried fresh food, firefighters, and a bunch of cargo.  There wasn't the dread since the patient wasn't in such a critical condition as before.  It was as if USAP was finally deciding to correct things from last time.

The lights of Pegasus Airfield await the C-17 (the white dot in the lower left corner)
The flashing red light of the distant C-17 slowly grew brighter and brighter and then completely disappeared into the only cloud in the sky.  Nothing else in the sky moved except for the exhaust floating from the pipes of the many vehicles it takes for such an operation.  My eyes were fixed upon the cloud trying to guess where the red light would reappear.  Despite the hum of numerous diesel engines it seemed silent because that sound has become so normal over the last seven months.  My heart rate slowed for what seemed like quite some time until the red light of the plane reappeared and still seemed very far off.  The rest happened very fast so the plane wasn't as far away as it had seemed.   My radio sputtered an announcement to have the runway lights turned down to 50%.  Then the flashing red light flared as the bright white spotlights on the plane were turned on.  A voice from the radio said to have the runway lights turned off.  I wonder what was seen from the cockpit through the night vision goggles.  It looked as if the plane was heading straight toward the group of people and vehicles sitting near the fuel tank beside the runway, but it landed perfectly on the newly groomed ice runway. 


The plane turned around and it was go-time for everyone.  They offloaded one pallet of cargo from WHOOPS and the plane was on the ground for 40 minutes.  This time they took 7 or 8 pallets of cargo off and it seemed like the plane wasn't on the ground for much longer thanks to the elite team of former and newly trained cargo handlers.

Offloading cargo from OOF
The plane soon took off and winter started again with new people and fresh food for the third time in just over two months.  Auroras on the eastern horizon welcomed the re-restart of winter.  The relative calmness felt after the plane took off ended not long after arriving back in McMurdo.  The wind had picked back up in town and somehow word had spread about the pallets of fresh food (locally known as freshies) arriving in town and a large crowd had gathered to help unload everything. 

Despite the ensuing gas from not having eaten fresh food in months, the mood at lunch the next day was livelier than it had been all season. Simple fresh food had quite the effect on an already jovial table of people crazy enough to spend the winter in Antarctica. 

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