The A factor in the Mawson fly-off

Aurora Australis ship travelling easily through light sea ice near Casey
Aurora Australis travelling easily through light sea ice near Casey (Photo: M. Boydell)
Aurora Australis ship coming into heavy sea iceThe sea ice near MawsonExpeditioners with boxes on deck of shipExpeditioners handling cargo from container on shipExpeditioner climbing over cargo in holdIn-going station leader puts on an immersion suitHelicopter takes off from shipAerial of Mawson station

23 November 2006

The 'A (for Antarctic) Factor' is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to operating in Antarctica: always expect the unexpected!

The Aurora Australis set off on Voyage 1 from Hobart on 12 October bound for Macquarie Island, Casey, Mawson and Davis.

After successfully delivering a new generator set to Macquarie Island, the ship headed for Casey to deploy a number of summering expeditioners. It then sailed towards Mawson to carry out station resupply using helicopters over the sea ice, collect wintering expeditioners and deploy the new summering and wintering crew.

However, unusually thick sea ice and poor weather conditions dogged the ship as it attempted to make its way to Mawson. The daily sitreps (situation reports) from the voyage leader and deputy voyage leader began to sound depressingly similar:

Awoke to depressing white-out conditions, which have been replaced by clearing skies around the ship. Went for a heli recce [reconnaissance] flight to the south-east, following some promising leads in the ice that currently become a dead-end. However, with the ice seeming to open, we'll have another look later this afternoon and assess whether we can close the gap between Mawson and us a bit more, and see if that pesky cloud has cleared off. The cloud is the issue at the moment, and if it clears, we'll be able to commence operations from this distance. However, there is still heavy ice between us and the new leads, and we want to be sure we're not getting ourselves into a situation we can't get out of again. (Sitrep 12 November)

After some days of making almost no progress, time was beginning to run out. The Aurora still had to resupply Davis before heading back to Australia.

During this period, the voyage management staff relied heavily on satellite ice imagery and were in constant contact with staff from the AAD Glaciology unit seeking expert advice. Ongoing discussions with ship's crew and AAD Head Office at Kingston resulted in the decision that the final cut-off date for action would be 14 November. If the opportunity had not yet presented itself to transfer passengers and cargo to Mawson by then, the ship would head off to Davis. Monday 13 November dawned much the same, as did the 14th:

Conditions stayed pretty dismal all yesterday at the ship, easing only slightly in the evening. Our cut-off time for flying to Mawson came and went. A problem with our V16 engine on the ship prevented us from heading off to Davis immediately, and was not repaired until this morning. So … You guessed it: this morning we had fantastic conditions at the ship, but there was a howling katabatic wind at Mawson. We just don't seem to be able to get this happening, do we? Early this morning we did a heli recce to find our way out of where we've spent the last few days, and found a good route to our east, which we're currently following. We're still within fly-off range to Mawson, and if conditions there ease we may be able to transfer some expeditioners ashore, and retrieve a few others. (Sitrep 14 November)

So… reluctantly, the ship turned its back on Mawson and headed for Davis, leaving disappointed winterers at Mawson, and a number of low spirited passengers on the ship.

However, shortly after changing direction, the weather cleared and ever responsive to windows of opportunity, the voyage management staff worked with ship's crew and helicopter pilots to prepare the aircraft, sort through priority cargo and arrange for the transfer of most of the new Mawson crew. Meanwhile, back at the station, a number of expeditioners prepared themselves with just a few hours notice, to leave their home of over twelve months and join the ship. Voyage management personnel, Nicki and Doug, take up the story:

Finally! The katabatic wind at Mawson eased yesterday afternoon, and we managed to fly in 15 people and their gear, and retrieve 9 Mawson winterers. So we've snatched a minor victory from the jaws of defeat, which was some consolation for the many days of waiting we endured. A great effort from our helicopter crew, the ship's crew, and Nicki and the Air Ground Support folks (who tirelessly organised and reorganised the cargo), amongst a cast of many tens. A real team effort. Since packing the helicopters away late last night, we've made good progress east and north towards Davis. (Sitrep 15 November)

The 'A Factor' had once again come into play. When working in Antarctica, our people never take anything for granted. Instead, they remain alert to every possibility and responsive, and once again in this venture, their determination to succeed paid off. Well done!