Yes, I did make it home. Here's a story of the trip and some pictures I took along the way.
Happy Holidays to everyone who followed along.
Going Home – Day One
Today is Thursday, December 13. I know it’s time to leave because I’ve gotten an email from housing telling me to clean my room and check out. I know because I got another email telling me to take my baggage to the MCC . I also know because of the many thanks, hugs, and goodbyes from other team members and people I’ve come to know at McMurdo. I know because when I look out across the frozen water of McMurdo Sound I see the Royal Society Range. The mountains are layered in clouds and fog. It’s like they are saying “we’re hidden from you, but we know you will remember us at our best”. And finally, I have my family waiting at home that I haven’t seen for six weeks. Yes, it’s time to go.
One of the most legendary events when leaving McMurdo is called Bag Drag. It’s like checking in at the airport for any flight, except you do it the day before and you get to drag your duffle bags from you dorm to the MCC at building 140. It’s not far, but I had four bags plus a backpack. Their total weight was around . So, I made two trips, dumping one load on the floor and then going back for the next. It really only took about 15 minutes. Once bags were at the MCC they were weighed and tagged and I was weighed-but not tagged- so that the total weight of me and my gear was known. Weight is important because every airplane has a set amount of weight it can carry. Our plane is going to be an LC-130. It’s a military transport that can haul about 50,000 pounds total. In addition to the people and their luggage, they also want to put as much cargo on board as possible, so they need to weight everything.
After I got done with bag drag, most of the WISSARD team met up for a little going away party. I got a really nice card that everyone signed and an Antarctic Coffee Mug. We met at the coffee house and shared stories from past Antarctic adventures as well as the time we shared this year. It was a nice sendoff and reminded me of what a good group I had gotten to be with for the past six weeks.
Breakfast and Transport to the Airfield
This morning started with breakfast. I had a ham and cheese omelet and some fruit.
A few more goodbyes were said, then I went back to pack up the few things left in my room and head up the hill to the MCC to get taken to the airfield at Pegasus. This is a different location than where I came in because the airfield had to be moved off of the sea ice and onto the more permanent shelf ice. This happens every year because the sea ice starts to break up and can’t hold up the airplanes. The down side of the move is that the Pegasus field is about away and it takes about an hour to get there. I did get to ride on Ivan the Terra Bus though! I also drove past our project site so I could see it from the road one last time.
Flying in an LC-130
When I flew from Christchurch, New Zealand to Antarctica, it was in a C-17. The C-17 has jet engines and a cruising speed of around 500 mph. Today on the return trip I’m in a smaller LC-130. It can cruise at around 400 mph and has propellers. They both carry cargo and people, but the C-17 can carry a lot more. The LC-130 wins on noise though!
At the airfield we boarded our plane and were given a web-belt seat along the side of the plane to sit in. Down the center of the plane were pallets of cargo. There are a few windows, but you really can’t see much from inside the plane.
Once everyone was aboard we put on our seatbelts, put in our ear plugs, and the pilot started the four engines. They are REALLY loud. After warm up we taxied out to the ice runway. At the end of the runway the pilot throttled up, we started down the runway and shortly we lifted off into the sky. It was a smooth takeoff.
Once the airplane was at cruising altitude we were free to move around the cabin between the cargo pallets and over each other’s feet. In other words, there’s not much room to move around. There was a good amount of leg room between my seat and the big stack of duffle bags on the pallet in front of me. The cargo master (an airman who is in charge of loading and watching over the cargo in the airplane) used the pile of duffle bags as his seat. It was pretty nice – he could lie back and read and definitely get comfortable. After that it was 7+ hours of flying over the southern Pacific Ocean to reach New Zealand.
I slept a little on the flight, looked out a window occasionally and saw mainly clouds. Occasionally there was clear sky and I could see the ocean below with bits of floating ice and then finally just water. I also pulled out my computer to write about some of the events of the past few days – like my airplane flight.
When we were within a couple of hours of landing I finally took off my ECW (Extreme Cold Weather Gear) which had gotten pretty warm and finished the flight in jeans and a t-shirt and tennis shoes. It felt really good to get all those heavy clothes off! Even though the LC-130 is pretty bare inside, it has a great heating system.
There’s one other thing that might bother some people on the LC-130 – the bathrooms are pretty basic. They are just a toilet with a curtain around it, no doors. Since you are on the airplane for almost 8 hours, you will be using them!
Our arrival back in Christchurch, New Zealand was uneventful. We landed, got off the plane and onto a bus, went through customs, and then took about a quarter mile walk to the CDC (that’s the U.S. departure center at the airport) to turn back in all of our ECW gear. It now seemed so simple – not the exciting and new experience that it had been during our departure. We just walked in, put our bright orange duffle bags with boots, big red Antarctic coat, coveralls and all the other equipment into a pile – and left for our hotels. I guess it’s best that way.
When I got to my hotel I needed a walk and dinner, so I walked the short distance down the street to the mall. It looks exactly like every other mall I’ve ever been in except for one major difference. Today is December 13, 2012 – not even two weeks until Christmas. The mall has Christmas decorations up, but they are simple and nothing like the way things are done up in the U.S. There was a place to get your picture taken with Santa, but since it’s sooo far to the North Pole, Santa takes a little break here in the forests and on the beaches of New Zealand. His reindeer would get too hot, so they stay at the North Pole also. Overall it is totally lacking the crazy level of commercialism that we see in the U.S. It was REALLY nice!
Day 2 - In Sydney and Beyond
Day 2 of the getting home saga started at 3:30 A.M. in Christchurch to catch a 6:35 A.M. plane.
My first leg was to Sydney, Australia. No worries – it was totally uneventful and I slept a little on the flight. I got to Sydney about 10:00 and set my watch back 2 hours, so really it was 8:00 A.M. local time. My flight to the U.S. didn’t leave until 3:40 P.M., so I had about 8 hours to cruise the Sydney Airport. Due to immigration laws I couldn’t even leave the secured area and go into the city without a visa, so I walked around a lot.
What do you do for eight hours in an airport? Not much.
It’s a nice enough airport, the shops had a few different things to look at, but it still looks like every other airport I’ve been in. It did have Christmas decorations up, including silver reindeer in the central meeting area. That seemed a little weird, but apparently it’s a part of our global image of Christmas. Santa was also here and in order to stay cool in the warm temperatures, he was wearing red shorts and flip-flops along with his red fur coat. It’s a good thing that the airport is air conditioned!
What I’ve seen of Sydney during our landing and takeoff and out the windows of the airport looks nice. It’s right on the coast and we came in over the ocean and Sydney harbor. The rock here is a nice tan, cross-bedded sandstone with distinct horizontal bedding. That means it was laid down in water and is in flat layers. It forms cliffs along some parts of the coast. The water of the ocean is a nice aqua blue. There are ships and boats out in the ocean, including a an oil tanker that was just heading out to sea from the harbor. There are oil refineries around the harbor which take crude oil and turn it into products like gasoline, diesel fuel, and different chemicals. I had a retired science teacher from Australia sitting next to me on the plane. He provided me a lot of information about the area. He also asked me questions about the state of science education in the U.S. so he could compare it to what was being done in Australia. It sounded like the Australians are following the lead of the U.S. on many of their policies and educational directions.
Finally in the U.S.
I know a lot of you will be wondering if I’ve seen a Kangaroo or Koala Bear here. No, I haven’t. Airports are not their native habitat! There are lots of stuffed Kangaroos and Koala Bear toys in the shops, but none of the real thing.
When I finally got on board my flight, I settled into my seat, had dinner, and settled in to finish out the 15 hour flight. I slept through much of the flight and woke up in time to enjoy landing about noon in Dallas, Texas.
After a fast sprint through the DFW airport to get to my flight home to Charlotte, North Carolina, I sat down in my last airplane of the trip and enjoyed the 3 hour ride to North Carolina. I arrived at 6:45 P.M., was met by my wife (who was REALLY glad to see me!), got by bags and went home to sleep in my own bed for the first time in almost 2 months. Yes, home is a really great place to be.