The morning started with a 4:40am wake-up call! After driving around town in the Super Shuttle picking up other passengers headed to the ice, we arrived that the CDC(abbreviation) Clothing Distribution Center (or Centre as they spell it in New Zealand) to change clothes into our ECW(abbreviation) Extreme Cold Weather clothing gear and get our luggage put on the plane. After receiving our boarding pass, it was time for a nice hot cup of coffee to get us ready for the 5-hour flight south.
Now for a play-by-play. . . A trip on a C-17 Globemaster III is something not very many people get to do in their lifetime, especially flying in one to Antarctica. So let’s see if I add details to the imagination. . .
You are in a plane that has a wing span over 51m (169ft), a length of over 54m (174ft), and a height at the tail of over 16m (55ft). The fuselage diameter is over 6m (22ft), has a payload capacity over 77,000kg (170,000lbs), and can have a max weight at take-off of over 265,000kg (585,000lbs). THIS IS A BIG PLANE!
There are 82 of us on the flight south, 54 lined along either side of the aircraft. There are only 4 porthole-sized windows on the cargo area and you’re only allowed to get up and move around while at cruising altitude, around 36,000 feet.
Once we all get settled into our seats and thus hatch is closed and secured, there is no more outside stimuli to know exactly what the plane is doing and when it’s going to happen. The next time you fly, try keeping your eyes closed the entire time (oh, and site sideways)! As the plane taxis out to the runway, you feel the side to side motion but not having any idea when the thrust is going to kick in. Your body gets pushed to one side or the other, unless you’re in the middle section with commercial style seats as the throttle is pushed to full! The only real way to know that you’ve taken off is the sound of the landing gear being retracted. There are a few shutters and shakes as the plane starts to level off.
As the cockpit starts to heat up to a comfortable temperature, the next 3 hours or so are quite uneventful, a gentle turn here, a little turbulence there. Then over the loudspeaker a crew member makes the announcement that we’re on approach, it’s time to get bundled up! This is where it really gets interesting. We start to turn a bit. You can tell it is a slight bank to the right, but as big as this plane is, it moves with surprising ease. We level out, only to bank back to the left ever so slightly. The nose pitches down, there are changes in the throttle, clearly felt by your body moving from one side to the other with the changes. Then there are the front to back motions (if you’re seated on the side rather than facing forward) as the plane tries to stay level while approaching the skiway. There are two sets of two wheels on either side of the plane making the landings quite smooth. It’s as if the plane is just hovering in mid air. There are no distinct signs that the plane is going to land, only the sound of the landing gear being deployed. You know you must be close now. There is a slight shudder, some indication that you might have landed, then the reverse thrusters roar to life! You rapidly decelerate and shift in your seat thinking you’re going to fly into the person next to you. As you ease down to taxi speed, you’re aware that you are in one of the most forbidding environments on the planet.
As we eventually slow to a stop, there are few moments of shear anticipation as everyone awaits the opening of the hatch. Cameras are out, hats are on tight, sunglasses and pulled into place. Then the hatch opens. . . Within seconds the cold, dry Antarctic air rushes into the plane, turning all the exhalations into rising towers of steam from all 82 passengers!
Then it’s into Ivan the Terra Bus for an hour ride back to McMurdo, followed by a briefing on station life, then room assignments, picking up luggage, bedding, making the bed. . . And then you’re settled in. Welcome to McMurdo!
P.S. We saw PENGUINS! Four of them in a group, and one of by himself. Unfortunately no pictures. They were a tad far from the vehicle and we were moving making it very difficult for any good photo opportunity. I will see what I can do about getting you some photos in the coming days. :)