Wilkins Aerodrome comes to life after a winter hibernation.

Wilkins Start up 2023 ... or is it 2024, or both!?

Time seems to have zero relevance when working at Wilkins Aerodrome, absolutely everything here revolves around the weather and the weather doesn't seem to care what day or year it is. We work whenever the weather allows and batten down the hatches and battle the elements when the weather feels like showing us how fickle mother nature really can be.

Start-up has been a bit of a rollercoaster of emotions, mostly good, some not so good but those highs and lows are to be expected when we are working somewhere so extreme in conditions that were originally so foreign to me, but now have become the norm.

It has been a big seven weeks since the Wilkins Crew departed Casey to kick the Aerodrome back into gear. Our excitement and spirits were high as we drove our convoy of tractors, Haggs and equipment off station and up the Hill. During the past seven weeks we have certainly held some big moments for our crew, the first night back in our camp was a welcome but not so thrilling experience...

As our living quarters have been at ambient temperatures for the winter period, a couple of hours with our room heaters going after we finally got our powerlines all hooked up to the generator van was not quite enough to have the rooms warm when we went to bed. That's okay I thought, I'll keep the heater cranked and tuck in under the covers in shorts and a T-shirt - I'll be toasty in no time. What I didn't account for was that my matteress springs would be colder than a mother in-law's kiss! I practically rebounded back out of bed quicker than a scalded cat, layered up in trackies, hoodies, socks and bunkered back down...

2:00 am - my heater has certainly been working overtime. I was peeling out, sweating bullets, full cotton mouth and feeling like I was being roasted alive, faaaar out. Get up, readjust layers and the heater, pop the door and roof vents to release enough hot air from my 2.5 m x 3 m sweatbox to carry a family of four across Canberra in a hot air balloon.

Well then, night one wasn't a great start...

Things have certainly improved since then, we were quite fortunate with a good window of relatively clear weather. This assisted us with moving our workshop location, get snow blowers operational, clearing our runway to nearly 3000 m, dozing clear our planned aircraft apron area, shifting our entire camp from the winter location to its summer location and adding in all the appropriate buildings. Fantastic I thought! But Antarctica had different a different idea.

A wee bit of bad weather: We had six days straight of 70 - 110+ knot winds, with a large amount of snow blowing in with it. Not ideal at all.

But let's get back to the human factor here, with weather like that the Wilkins crew stay indoors and let's liken our indoors to a very small apartment. That space is shared with six people who are showering minimally to conserve water, using incinerating toilets, in a building that is shaking so badly in the extreme wind, we have to yell to have a conversation and now sleeping on the floor in the mess in sleeping bags as condition black bans any travel back across the 14 meters of vicious Antarctic weather to our sleeping quarters and warm beds. Sounding like fun yet?

Yep! We definitely made some fun. Board games, virtual golf, TV series, card games, darts, cooking lessons and a quick trip for some of the crew out to the generator van to shovel out all the snow accumulation and swap fuel tanks. We made jokes and laughed but there was always that constant reminder from the howling wind that any mistake here and we could be in serious strife.

As the storm broke, we were all pretty keen to get some fresh air and assess the damage. We had a good look around and infrastructure wise everything was looking 100% solid at camp, how good is that!
All the blizzard prep work we did leading into this storm seems to have paid off! So we piled into our trusty Hagg and go to check on the workshop. As we are bumping along the bumps seem a lot bigger than usual, that's weird. Only then did we realise we are actually driving ON our runway, that had only just cleared and now was covered in monster sastrugi. BUGGER.

Well, I guess we'd best clear that runway again eh. What an absolute downer, but we jollied each other up and hooked in. This was our time to shine, hot-seating machines, working efficiently as possible and in two weeks - BAM we had entirely cleared our runway again, what a team!

Since then we have achieved some other good operational tasks, we've prepped and weighted the proof roller, done a first grade on the apron, dozed the pad for the summer workshop location and managed a huge amount of snow accumulation around camp. Most importantly I feel is the completion of surveying and marking of the runway and apron, this is a tricky, precise and very cold job to get done, so it is quite the milestone to have completed.

We still have a big few weeks ahead of us to get this runway operational for the flying season so our replacements can arrive and our friends can return home. I have already started reflecting on the team I have been lucky enough to be a part of and the experiences Antarctica has offered.

Team, mateship and trust is the core of the Wilkins Crew. I start every day here knowing that someone has my back and I have theirs. There is a mutual trust and understanding in everything we do. It is indescribable how quickly things can go pear shaped a million different ways in this inhospitable environment at the bottom of the world.
There are no other people I would rather have spent the 76th ANARE season with than the team of absolute legends I was turfed in with and feel stoked being a part of something so special. I have mates for life.

Tom Gersbach

Wilkins Aerodrome Crew