The windows are porthole sized and there are only six of them on this plane. Welcome to cargo class. We’re on the first flight of the summer “Mainbody” Antarctic season and the C-17 globemaster is roaring over the Southern Ocean. A walk to the window and a glance outside reveals breaking waves visible from 30,000’. Back at my seat I plug into my iPod and slouch under the hood of my Big Red Parka, 2 hours down, 3 to go.
I was half asleep earlier this morning when Beck and I rode the shuttle van to the Antarctic Passenger Terminal outside the Christchurch airport. After years of midnight wakeups in the mountains you’d think I’d be used to pre-dawn starts, but 5:00 AM still feels like the graveyard shift. I can’t even drink coffee at that hour. The departure ritual goes like this: stumble into the dressing warehouse, pack away the street clothes and climb into insulated carhartt coveralls, fleece, and poly-pro; strap on comically oversized smurf blue FDX polar boots; then pile all your luggage onto an airport cart and proceed through the x-ray and metal detector along with the other 120 souls on the flight. Invariably the metal detector goes off for everyone, so we all get the wand treatment. Next comes the first of six briefings we’ll receive today, a video and lecture. Strangely, the TV in the waiting lounge is playing a special about the Mt. Erebus Disaster when an Air New Zealand DC-10 slammed into the very volcano that overlooks McMurdo Station. There were no survivors. Like sheep to the slaughter, we board a bus and are whisked onto the tarmac and into the belly of the beast. Before I step aboard I take one last glance at a patch of green grass and one last breath of the humid New Zealand air. Next stop: Winter!!
Two hours is a long time to expect my second generation iPod battery to last and, predictably, 2 hours and 25 minutes into the flight my blissful date with Gillian Welch is replaced by the dull roar of Pratt and Whitney. Rifling through my bag for a book I suddenly feel as if I’ve been stood on my head and I glance around at the other passengers. Everyone is sleeping, eating, reading, drooling as normal. When the plane rolls out of its turn I understand: we’re going back. A few faces are grinning now and soon the intercom crackles the word, “Boomerang.”
The Boomerang is legendary amongst USAP participants. Capricious weather combined with the need to stick to a schedule forces the Air Force into launching planes even if the weather in McMurdo is marginal. Sometimes the gamble pays off and the flight gets in, today we’ll burn $35,000 in jet fuel and go nowhere. Tales of turning back mere minutes from landing abound, weeks spent in Christchurch waiting to fly, horror stories of 5am wake-ups and trips to the airport day after day after day without reaching the ice. However, Uncle Ray-Ray (that’s Raytheon Polar Services, my employer) picks up the tab for food and lodging, so it’s a bit of a vacation.
By mid-afternoon we’re on the ground and checking into another Christchurch hotel. There is green grass, tulips and trees, dogs on leashes, kids playing in the parks. Thai food for dinner? Why not. Tomorrow we’ll check back in at the passenger terminal, but if we’re cancelled we’ll go flying, or maybe we’ll drive into the mountains for a soak in the hot springs. Christchurch is a great city when you have money to burn and time on your hands!