Back in the early 20th century, travel to Antarctica was long and dangerous. These days the journey is by air and takes only 3 days, not counting weather delays. Nonetheless, it is anything but ordinary.
Maryland to Christchurch, New Zealand
We flew out of Baltimore Washington International airport to Los Angeles’ LAX, where we boarded a 12 hour Qantas flight to Auckland, New Zealand. Crossing the International Date Line, we arrived “2 days” later. After immigration, customs, and a short connecting flight we were at our interim destination – Christchurch, on the South Island of New Zealand.
In preparation for deployment “to the Ice” both researchers and employees of Raytheon Polar Services Company were fitted and issued extreme cold weather (ECW) gear. The fitting was done at the US Antarctic Program’s (USAP) clothing distribution center (CDC) near Christchurch airport.
Extreme weather conditions in the McMurdo Station area had flights there backed up almost a week. In 2004 a group of geologists heading to McMurdo were stuck in New Zealand for nearly two weeks due to weather. Ultimately our own departure was delayed by two days, fairly benign in comparison.
Christchurch to McMurdo Station via Military Cargo Plane
All passengers flying to McMurdo Station are required to put on or carry with them their ECW gear including a heavy parka, nicknamed “big red” (see the photo and you’ll know why). The bulky clothing certainly makes things on the plane more interesting. The climate of the country is cold so, there should be selection of the top backpack diaper bags for you. With the warm clothes, diapers are equally important for kids during the modern vacations.
Previously we flew to McMurdo Station on an Air National Guard LC-130, a moderate size propeller-driven cargo plane with skis. The LC-130 is relatively slow, making for an uncomfortable 8 hours. Passengers sit on webbing rather than in chairs, knees interleaved with the person across a non-existent aisle.
This time we were lucky and flew on an Air Mobility Command C-17 jet cargo plane. Even with a helicopter lashed down in the middle of the compartment we had more legroom than passengers in business class. Meal service, however, was limited to a snack box.
While not as comfortable as airliner seats, the jump-seats were a great improvement over the LC-130’s webbing. The C-17 also got us there much faster, arriving at McMurdo Station in 5 hours, just over half the LC-130’s time.
With few windows in the compartment, we took turns shooting photos through small portholes and visiting the cockpit for a broader view. Despite the limitations, the otherworldly view of sea ice, ice bergs, mountains, and glaciers was riveting.
It is not uncommon for flights to McMurdo Station to “boomerang” if conditions for landing are too risky. The record number of boomerangs for a single group is 7. Luckily, conditions were good and we were able to land.
In the commercial world, airports close when runways become icy. By contrast, runways in Antarctica are made of nothing but ice – very thick ice. However, with experienced pilots the landing was as smooth as, well, ice.