On February 5th we set flight to Antarctica aboard Ice Flight 26. It would turn out to be one of the best days of my life! For as long as I can remember I have been obsessed with planes and aviation. We got to fly on the Boeing C-17 Globemaster, a real beast of the sky. It is a truly versatile military aircraft. So, sit back relax and enjoy some plane froth fresh from the icy continent!
A very friendly first sight from the one of the pilots. I knew I was in for a good one and in very safe hands! #Shaka
A different kind of safety briefing that's for sure! These guys could probably run for Air NZ's newest safety video. That contraption he's holding up is for if we loose pressure in the cabin, much like the ones in normal commercial jets. However, this one looks like some kind of space shower cap that you put over your whole face... Just Airforce things I guess?
Front row seats baby! A few things to point out regarding flying in the C-17 South to Antarctica. 1. Things get hot. To be prepared for any weather when you land in Antarctica, you have to wear all your ECW gear (extreme cold weather) on the flight. How cold is extreme cold you may ask? Well what we wore was rated down to -70°C... 2. The inside of the aircraft is strictly a fuselage and that's about it. Only what you need and nothing you don't! Something to keep the air inside and at pressure and something to attach all the wires & pipes to... That's about it I guess. Makes your domestic flight from Auckland to Christchurch seem like absolute luxury! There was no complimentary tea, coffee, cookies or corn chips being served. However, to their credit our packed lunches were superb (and large just in case you had to turn around AKA a Boomerang, stuff of nightmares I hear...)! The lack of any insulation around the aircraft from the engines meant it was quite hard to talk to one another. The fact that air-plugs were handed out at the beginning might have made this clear... It certainly didn't stop me from making some new mates along the way however!
Among some new mates, these were a couple of them! Brig. Gen. Russel Ponder (left) and General Stephen W. Wilson. Turns out, these guys were a pretty big deal! General Wilson happens to be Vice Chief of Staff for the US Airforce... That's second in charge of about half a million people. So classic, only on a flight to Antarctica I guess! I only found this out a couple of days later when I had a beer with them at the Scott Base bar, 'The Tatty Flag'. They were really lovely people!
There was a great spirit on the plane. For people like me, this may be your one opportunity to visit an otherwise very inaccessible and quite exclusive land. You could get up often and walk around. It was a vibe. There was even a little pep hole to check if we made it to the icy boundary of the continent! We were about 3 hours into the 5 - 6 hour flight when I got the opportunity to go upstairs to visit the pilots. I genuinely tried to play it cool and hold myself together but as soon as I got up there I lost the plot and we ripped Shakas together like no tomorrow...
It was a dream come true to be able to sit up top with them and just watch them 'work'. One hell of an office if you ask me!
Matt (centre) reminded me of a very important lesson in life. "It's all about having fun!" Too right, we all get caught up in a drive for things that don't actually make us happy... It was a little food for thought in a pretty unique situation.
What they say is true! Time really does fly when you're having fun. Before I knew it, it was time to get ready for landing. Note - the following images were taken 2 days later when I had the opportunity to visit the airfield again!
This is one of my favourite photographs of the whole trip! At the time I took the photograph I didn't even notice our little native photo bomber. I couldn't believe my luck! Imagine being the Emperor and seeing this plane roaring down the ice. The day before the plane was held up and had to circle around the ice shelf as a few Emperor penguins had decided to park themselves on the runway! A crew of people did their best to usher them off but I think they must have known the chaos they could cause and I reckon they loved it. Only in Antarctica...
Full breaks onnnnnnn. I remember when we touched ground there was a sudden impact, then the howling noise of air being forced around and through every nook and crany of the aircraft. Notice in between the images, even the jet splits in two by the middle to disturb the flow of the air and I suppose cool the engines down. Safe to say, the aircraft increased in drag and we slowed. The ice runway made for a long air strip but was still a tad bumpy. Fair enough! Just preparing an ice runway is a lot of effort and new snow can put delays on the whole process of preparation. I'm not exactly sure what they had to do on it but from the machinery I could see, they had a big roller that I believe compressed the ice, a groomer much like what you'd see at the ski fields and then a simple rake like frame which was dragged behind a vehicle.
Fun fact - Phoenix Airfield is a relatively new operation in Antarctica. It opened in early 2017 after replacing the old Pegasus Field. Due to buildup of black (heat absorbing) sediment and hot temperatures Pegasus became unusable during peak Summer months. Fun fact 2 - There are two airstrips on the ice shelf near the US Base McMurdo and Scott Base. Phoenix as mentioned above but also Willies. Williams Field or 'Willies' is the airstrip for the Hercules LC-130 (pictured below). They use different airstrips as they have different requirements. The C-17 is large and heavy aircraft with only wheels to support its icy landing. The LC-130, however, has skis attached to their wheels which allows them to land in less ideal icy runway conditions. This makes them an all season round capable aircraft. They're mostly used at the peak of Summer in the December - January months. Phoenix goes out of service during this time as the ice can't support a purely wheel based landing!
Imagine guiding that puppy in! Beyond any chat of it being a very practical aircraft for operations in Antarctica, it is just a gorgeous plane. Curves to die for! When we pulled up I'll never forget the moment they opened the side door which we enter and exit through. I was sitting in the front seat and the millisecond it opened I got slapped in the face by freezing Antarctic air. My heavy breath immediately turned into misty smoke. It then it settled in. We had made it and boy that air tasted good!
As soon as the C-17 lands, it's all stations are go. They off load the people and cargo immediately and begin filling the plane up with what needs to go back North to the mainland, again mostly people and cargo. In a miraculous set of events while they were loading the C-17 I got to see a couple of ridiculous things... Firstly remember those high ranking US Airforce officials I photographed and was lucky enough to meet above? They as well as their entourage of really cool people were on their way back North, so naturally they flew a LC-130 over as a farewell and sign of respect. I couldn't believe my luck! Second ridiculous event was seeing the C-17 being loaded with one of the NZ helicopters that had finished its service in Antarctica for the season. One aircraft going into another aircraft... It gives you a real appreciation for the size and usefulness of the C-17! See below, it was an epic effort by the Antarctica NZ team.
Fun fact - the Heli pilot always travels with their aircraft on these trips to make sure they're handled properly.
Below, an Antarctic twin engine aircraft that transports people and specialist equipment longer distances across and beyond the Ross Sea area. These planes are leased and rather amazingly flown from Canada each year to the ice. What I'd do to get on that across the world flight!
After you jump out of the plane you make your way towards what honestly seem like large space buses. I was lucky enough to get a ride in 'Ivan the Terra Bus'. The tyres alone stand taller than humans!
Once we all jumped on a full Ivan, we cruised for about an hour back along the ice shelf and on our way to Ross Island.
Us Kiwis in the orange jackets were destined for the HQ of New Zealand science in Antarctica, Scott Base. The others destined for McMurdo, the US equivalent. The rest is history!
P.s the Airforce boys have their Antarctica Unfrozen patches and stickers, do you?