Tuesday, May 13, 2014

4. Point of Safe Return

Northern Victoria Land, Antarctica, seen from New Zealand Hercules. Photo © Bruce Luyendyk
Cockpit view of Northern Victoria Land, Antarctica. 
Photo © B. Luyendyk 
Excerpt from chapter 4

“Ice is the beginning of Antarctica and ice is its end. As one moves from the perimeter to the interior, the proportion of ice relentlessly increases. Ice creates more ice, and ice defines ice.” Steven Pyne, South Light



“I’m goin’ to ask if I can get up on the flight deck,” I said to Tucker. We sat with thirty others crammed hip-to-hip on the red web seats that lined the sides and center of the Hercules cargo hold. He heard me through the yellow earplugs we all wore, nodded, went back to his book.

I timed my visit so I could see Antarctica for the first time.
We approached from over the Southern Ocean. Others on board this flight had been up to the deck earlier but saw only an angry sea 25,000 feet below. I stepped between the knees of the other passengers who sat alongside and across from us – turned each foot sideways with every step knees touched knees. I made my way forward.

At the entrance to the deck, I saw the legs of a crewman above me. “Hello, can I come up?” He waved me up. The New Zealand Air Force crew was casual and friendly. We were fortunate to fly with them. I climbed the few steps onto the flight deck. A brilliant sky met me. The cargo hold was dim, had only a few portholes. My eyes took a few moments to adjust.

Four crewmen a pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and navigator sat before me. The pilots were at the front with the engineer behind and between them in a jump seat. The navigator had a seat at an instrument panel to the right rear. All were young handsome men - they wore neat, tailored, green uniforms with the New Zealand Southern Cross flag on the shoulder. They had headsets for communication and aviator glasses to round out the special nature of this place. Flight instruments covered ceiling and wall space. Cockpit windows spanned from overhead to the deck and from side-to -side to afford a wide view.
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On the horizon before me I could see the white promise of the Antarctic coast of Northern Victoria Land, at first hazy but over the minutes it came into focus. Soon we flew over the coastline formed by glaciers, ice shelves and sea ice that made an apron for the majesty of peaks right behind them. My stomach tightened, but in a good way, like the anticipation of a first date with a woman I was obsessed about.

Below me I watched and witnessed an unimaginable expanse of ice pass by. Ice reached ahead to the horizon. Glaciers spread out like rivers and tributaries - steep pointed gray peaks jutted out from the white blanket of snow and ice. In the distance the ice dominated. The immense Antarctic Ice Sheet buried the highest peaks, ignored their existence made them disappear. How can this place be, how can it exist? How did I happen to be here on this great adventure?
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We were now about six hours out of Christchurch with two more to go before landing. A couple of hours earlier we passed the PNR, the Point of No Return1, half way to McMurdo Station. I heard about the PNR from talk and rumors. Details were explained as we sat in the military bus on the Christchurch airport tarmac. The pilot entered the front of the bus to brief us. Squashed into the bench seats we wore bulky ECW2 clothes, a few of us their red parkas, they sweated. Our canvas orange clothing bags sat on our laps crushed between the seat ahead and our chins. He began.

He told us flight time was a bit over eight hours, most of it over the Southern Ocean. “If we have to ditch, follow orders of the crew, they will help you get into Immersion Suits3 and life rafts,” he said, “otherwise in the water you’ll last about five minutes.” Don’t make me think about this. “The PNR is about four hours out, we’ll call McMurdo and check the weather, see if we can land on the Sea Ice Runway, can’t land at Williams Snowfield, our aircraft doesn’t have skis,” he said. “Weather’s OK we continue, not good then we boomerang back to New Zealand.” Huh, a trip to nowhere and back. He continued, “Past the PNR we can’t return, don’t carry enough fuel.” Someone on the bus asked if there were instrument landing aids. “No, it’s Visual Flight Rules,” he said. Man next to me muttered, “Could need to land in a whiteout, that’s happened more than once.” I wondered if this pilot had done one of those.
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1. Now called Point of Safe Return
2. Extreme Cold Weather
3. Insulated neoprene over suit
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