The WISSARD project won’t be using helicopters, but many of the projects do. There is no way you can ignore them. They are thumping around in the sky all day long and the heliport area is just outside the Crary lab where I spend quite a bit of time. To learn more about helicopter operations in the Antarctic today the outreach team went down to visit with John at the heliport. John’s job is to schedule helicopter time, oversee the heliport, and make sure that cargo and equipment are ready to go. It’s an important job for the research teams because for many of them the only way they can get to their field areas is by air.

One of the many takeoffs from the McMurdo Heliport that occurs every day.

We Have A Need

One member of our outreach team is Dave Monk. Dave is a professional videographer from Chicago. He’s been a great inspiration for all of us because he is very talented and knows that how you tell a story is just as important at the story itself. He had some great ideas for showing how helicopters are used here.

His first idea was to get some video footage of a helicopter taking off from the launch pad. He wanted two views. One was easy. It would be taking pictures from the side, watching the helicopter take off and rise into the sky. The second was to get a shot from underneath the helicopter as it lifted up off of the pad. This took a little more effort!

A CHIMP is Born

Dave had already decided that to get the liftoff shot he would use his GoPro Sports video camera and put it directly under the aircraft. Since it’s too dangerous to actually have a person under the helicopter, we had to come up with a way to mount the camera AND make sure that it couldn’t be blown up into the rotors by the air coming down during takeoff. Basically we needed to mount the camera to a heavy weight. That’s where I came into the picture.

Another WISSARD and I went out looking for something that we could use as a mount. It always pays to have an objective in mind before beginning a project or else you don’t know when you’re done. Our design objectives were very simple: the mount had to be heavy enough to stay in place; it had to have a secure attachment for the camera, it needed to be cheap (like cost nothing), and it had to be something we could build that night…, starting at 9:00 P.M…. that would be ready to use the next morning at 8:00! And one other item – appearances didn’t matter, but it had to have a spot to put a WISSARD sticker! Any materials that could be obtained by dumpster diving was also a plus. Overall, this was a pretty simple objective list.

John, Susan, Dave
John the heliport operations manager, Susan our outreach coordinator, and Dave, our videographer in action getting footage of helicopters taking off.

Tim, the other WISSARD, had remembered seeing an old dumbbell weight in the Skua hut (Skua is an area where stuff is put that is free and available to anyone who wants it). We checked and the weight was still there. It was a round weight, slightly rusty, and free. It fit all the requirements, so we took it back to the shop in Crary lab. Tim had other things to get done, so he left and I started in on the design – build phase. Again, this part of the project began with some scrounging and dumpster diving to find mounting materials that would let us use the GoPro mounting plate that Dave already had. I forgot to mention that one other design criteria was to prevent damage to the GoPro or any of its parts.

Unfortunately I did not have my camera with me as I was making the mount, so I’ve made some drawings to show the basic design of the CHIMP (Camera Helicopter Isolation Mounting Platform).

This is CHIMP, Computer Helicopter Isolation Mounting Platform.

CHIMP is basically a barbell weight sandwiched between two pieces of wood that provide a surface for mounting one of the GoPro mounting straps. Simple things are often the most reliable. So far our success rate is 100% on two takeoffs and one landing. No damage to either camera or helicopter.

Dave Monk getting camera ready
Dave is attaching the GoPro to CHIMP in preparation for getting a lift off picture from underneath the helicopter.

My story about CHIMP is a good example of how scientists use their imagination to get their job done. Another old saying is “Necessity is the mother of invention.” In this case I knew where to get materials and I had some skills that let me do the job. The objective or need had been identified by another member of the team. Putting those two parts together let us come up with a simple and usable solution that got the job done! Even though WISSARD has a lot of very expensive equipment and high-tech solutions for many of the science objectives, sometimes the simple, cheap approach works just as well.

Here is a closeup of CHIMP. Pretty sweet camera mounting system!

Placing CHIMP under helicopter
John is placing the CHIMP under the helicopter just before it spins up for takeoff.

The McMurdo Helicopter Fleet

Currently there are four helo’s (short for helicopter) at McMurdo for use by the US Antarctic Program. There is also one helicopter that is used by the New Zealand Station at Scott Base. Two of the smaller U.S. helicopters are being readied for transport to the PIG (Pine Island Glacier) project and have had their rotors, motor shaft, and landing skids removed.

The A-Star helicopter that is being prepared to ship to PIG on an LC130 cargo plane.

The PIG site is too far away for the helicopters to fly there on their own, so they will be transported in an LC130 transport aircraft. They look pretty sad sitting on their pads without their rotors! You might remember that in my November 4 Journal Entry I described my trip from Christchurch to McMurdo on board a C-17 transport. During that trip I sat next to the New Zealand stations helicopter.

If you’ve never been around helicopters, they are some of the coolest machines around. They simply don’t look like they should fly (and when you’re riding in one, you hope that they really do KEEP flying!). The larger ones here can carry a load of around 3000 pounds. That is both cargo and people. I hope to get some of the video posted that we took. I have to work with Dave Monk to get what he shot and then move it up to YouTube – it may take a day or so, but when I do I’ll put in a notice.

If you are interested in aircraft, you might want to explore what it takes to be a pilot or mechanic. Both of those jobs are very important in the Antarctic. You can also explore the history of using airplanes to explore in the Antarctic. Every since Robert Byrd successfully flew over the South Pole in 1929 in a Ford Tri-motor, airplanes have been a part of the Antarctic experience.

Interesting Links:

Byrds South Pole Flight A short history of Byrds expeditions to Antarctica How Helicopters Work

McMurdo Station, Antarctica
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