The news that I had a place on the 2014–2015 ANARE (Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition) felt like those few seconds in an airliner when it climbs out of the top of the overcast. As the cloud thins and disappears the light grows stronger until sunlight streams in through the windows and lifts the spirits. Looking forward to the certainty of good company and a good life during the expedition, adventure, and not having to think beyond the end of the expedition. Walking up the gangway in Hobart normally banishes the cares of the world.
Everything in Antarctica depends on the weather. Aircraft in Antarctica follow ‘Visual Flight Rules’ (VFR) which basically means the pilots have to be able to see where they are going. There is no air traffic controller equipped with radar to direct the pilot. There are no radio beacons for the aircraft instruments to lock onto and there is no ILS (Instrument Landing System) to enable landing in low or zero visibility. The runway is often a white strip set in a white landscape. This means that for flights from Davis to Mawson the weather has to be good at both stations which is rare. It is quite normal to be delayed for a week by the weather. In general there is no fog and not much chance of rain and in summer it does not get dark. But, there is cloud, wind and snow. Cloud cover over snow can obliterate the horizon and create a ‘white-out’ which destroys all perception of scale and makes it impossible for the pilot to judge his or her distance from the ground. On a completely white landscape lit by diffused sunlight nothing stands out. Crevasse fields, icebergs, ice cliffs, sastrugi (sharp ridges carved in the ice by the wind) and snow covered hills all merge into a white nothingness. GPS satellite navigation helps with finding the destination but good visibility is usually crucial for take off and always essential for landing.
So, there is a scheduled date for the flight and usually the weather is not good enough but it might be in a few days time so we all clean our rooms and pack. Then we might be told to be ready tomorrow. There is an expectation that expedition members will wash their own bed linen on their day of departure so we get up early and wash our sheets. Next the weather changes and the flight is postponed but we might be going the day after tomorrow. The sheets go back into the washing machine again after two days then the expected good weather does not happen and so it goes on. Those sheets get really clean. It feels like camping in a departure lounge. There is a dreadful temptation to ask anybody who is connected with flying, AGSOs (Air Ground Support Officers), pilots, meteorologists, station leader, when she or he thinks the flight might happen. Since all the available information has already been disseminated this temptation has to be resisted and potential passengers just spread rumours amongst themselves. Eventually, just as I begin to unpack a few things ,somebody pokes their head round the door and says “be ready to go in half an hour”. Well it is not always exactly like that but the gist of the foregoing description is true.Flight FBAAP3 from Davis to Mawson was no exception and after two weeks waiting for the weather the AGSOs drove us across the sea ice to the waiting Twin Otter aircraft. The Twin Otter is often described as a sort of aerial Land Rover because it can land and take off almost anywhere but in reality it has a much more pleasing and sensual shape than a Land Rover. People have been known to take a Sunday walk across the ice just to look at a Twin Otter.
On take-off, each of the two pilots puts a hand on the throttles so one covers the others hand. It somehow gives a sense of security when you see it. I wonder if it would take two people holding the steering wheel to drive a Land Rover on ice.
Passengers, pilots and luggage share the same cabin with the cargo in the middle of the aircraft between the passengers at the back and the pilots at the front. One or other of the pilots looked back to smile encouragingly at us passengers every once in a while. The cabin was not cold but intriguingly, frost formed on the inside of the windows.
The view through the window revealed landscapes and seascapes of ice. We could see pack ice were a multitude of enormous floes rendered tiny by their distance below us formed an irregular patchwork as if some giant had scattered pure white confetti on the surface of the ocean. In many places new ice was forming as floating island shards of grey whitening towards the edges, pressing together and overlapping. Sometimes the shadow of the aeroplane could be seen below crossing the gargantuan white icing sugared wedding cake of snow-covered fast ice. Towards the end of the flight, stretches of blue ice inscribed with lines of embedded snow sped by and then we passed the mountains near Mawson and so, into the airspace above the station. After almost exactly two and a half hours in the air there was a roar from the engines and without even a hint of a jolt the aircraft skis touched and ran across the pebble ice near the West Arm of Mawson’s Horseshoe Harbour.
Refuelling operations began and nice people in Hägglunds gave the passengers rides in to the station. There were chocolates on the bed.