Friday, November 30, 2007

Eeking Out The End Of The Winter

Baby Emperors

After a few weeks to get used to an extra seven people on base, the rest of November has seen several more flights bringing people, such that by the end of the month there are over sixty people on base. Despite all the flights in, it was also the end of our time together as a wintering team as Sune disappeared off on a flight out into the deep field to start his summer field project.

Unloading the Twin Otter- 'Bravo Lima'

Regardless of all the large Basler flights coming through, there is something quite exciting about the arrival of the first BAS Twin Otter on station, which will be based here for most of the summer. Its role is putting in field parties carrying out BAS science projects in this part of the Antarctic. Despite all the construction work, this is going to be one of Halley's busiest summer science seasons, partly as it is the International Polar Year (IPY), which means the skiway is going to be busy.

Simpson Science Team Head Back for Lunch

All the flying means I have been spending a fair amount of time at the skiway as one of the Doc's jobs is to provide medical and fire cover for all take-offs and landings, along with helping out with fuelling and loading and unloading the planes.

Halley International Airport
The BAS Twin Otter (foreground) refuels while the Basler unloads passengers

Usually almost all the summer staff arrive on the Shackleton, which will not be here until mid-December but in order to get as much done this summer as possible, the ALCI operated Baslers are being used to fly people in en masse. Moreover, there would be no space on the Shackleton, as almost all the berths are taken up with the incoming Morrison's construction team.

The Cliffs at Windy

The first field project out of here, bearing the sledge call-sign Yankee, was Sune as part of a two-man geological project out in the Sverdrupfjella- the Norweigan name for a mountain range in Dronning Maud Land (Dronning meaning Queen in Norweigan), not far from their station at Troll. This map should give an idea of how far away this all is, incidentally the stations at Kohnen, Wasa and Svea are all summer only leaving Neumayer as our closest wintering companions.

Loading Sune's Kit Onto a Basler
Chris (an ALCI pilot) supervises the process- photo thanks to Dave Evans

Given that he is going to be in the field for nine weeks and travelling nearly a thousand miles on ski-doo around the mountains, there was enough cargo for two planes. Hence one of the Baslers, returning back towards their base at Novo took some of it as far as Troll, where Sune caught up with it a few days later, flown over by Twin Otter, putting some field depots (of food and fuel) in on the way.

Sune & His Birthday Cake

Bad weather, as ever, slightly delayed his departure but it meant that he got to celebrate his birthday on base. He admitted to being keen on shortbread, so continuing my birthday cake making role, I made a half-Nansen sledge from shortbread decorated with field boxes and jerry cans made of sponge. He had an emotional send-off, as much since we will miss him (he will not be leaving via Halley) but also as his departure marks the break-up of this year's winter team.

More Chicks

With the arrival of the ship fast approaching, it has also meant the UAV project gradually winding up, as Tom and his small planes will be leaving with the ship at first call and there is at least a week's worth of packing to be done before the start of relief.

Waiting for the UAV to Return
Tom waits by K24

The three of us involved in flying the UAV (Tom- pilot and project leader, Alex- managing the telemetry and me- launching), have managed to get off base a couple more times, trundling down to the coast at Windy Bay in our specially modified Sno-Cat K-24. As a result we have had several more successful flights out over the sea-ice collecting data as part of a BAS science project to better understand the transfer of energy between sea, sea ice and the lower atmosphere.

Launching the UAV
I pull the plane back on a long elasticated cord and then let go...

In order to get as many flights in as possible, we spent a night out at the Windy caboose. With the UAV's batteries recharging and unable to fly further that day, the three of us took the opportunity to visit the penguin colony down on the sea ice for the last time. (The UAV does not actually fly over the penguins at Windy- the bay is big enough for it to fly several kilometres to the east of the colony itself).


Each visit is special and this one was no different. I cannot remember if I have written about this before but it is unusual for any creature to come so close and yet not be perturbed by us and in turn for us not to be endangered in any way. Though it may be anthropomorphic to suggest, the trust they place in us in approaching so close is one of the most thrilling aspects of visiting the colony.

Emperors Up Close

It will be difficult to forget lying flat on the ice taking photographs and being mobbed by inquisitive penguins. We are keen not to disturb any of the birds and aim never to encroach closer than five metres or keep our distance if appears we are upsetting them in anyway, however stand still for only a few moments and the most curious will start to waddle much closer.

Inquisitive Penguins
Tom and Alex approached by waddling adults

At one point, lying prone on the ice photographing chicks with a long lens, I found myself surrounded on four sides by quietly inquisitive adults and chicks all happy to approach within a few feet and watch as I flailed around on the floor with a large rucksack on my back. However, with the sudden descent of low stratus cloud, a rolling bank of fog appeared in the distance and it was time to get off the ice and to leave the penguins behind for probably my last time.

Crepuscular Rays and a Faint Ice Halo
A halo formed by refraction of light through ice crystals high in the cirrostratus cloud

As expected, it is an odd feeling finding what used to be our home increasingly swamped by people who have not spent the year down here with us and are not necessarily attuned to some of the unwritten rules that exist amongst a community of people who have been living together for so long. Furthermore it is also interesting how by benefit of having spent a good winter together, the work of all those coming in is much easier than if there were profound hostilities between the 18 of us. A happy base is understandably more productive.

A Basler Taxis Into Re-fuel
Chad (Z-Air Mech) guides the plane in

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Planes Both Big & Small

First Contact
The first plane arrives- photo by Sune Tamm-Buckle

The last person I saw, other than those 17 other people I have spent the winter with, was on the 18th February. Now for the first time in eight-and-a-half months there are new faces, mail and fresh fruit & veg, though not necessarily in that order of priority.

Waiting for the Plane

It was a night of snatched sleep on the 1st November as the arrival time of the first plane gradually drifted backwards along with frantic last minute preparations to ensure everything was ready. After its long flight from the BAS base at Rothera and then out over the Weddell Sea, it arrived at half four in the morning with a large proportion of the base huddled on the reassuringly cold skiway apron, trying to catch a first sight of the Basler as it circled over the Brunt.

Unloading Pax and Cargo

Having been deprived of new people for the best part of the year, it is difficult to describe the excitement of speaking to someone new and at the same time the realisation that the great winter we have had together is at an end. Though it is thrilling having new people around and the sudden progress in work taking place is great, deep down there there is a slight resentment, even if jokingly, to new people invading what has been our home for the better part of a year.

Me at the penguins
Photo thanks to Sune

The first plane brought not only our new Base Commander, Vicky, in but also six other people and the base does suddenly seem very busy. It may seem daft but one of those things which miss already is sitting around a large table at lunch time chatting; the influx of a batch of new people means that the previously spacious dining room almost induces claustrophobia.

Vicky in Front of Polar V

While the first BAS plane, one of the Twin Otters, is a while off arriving yet, in the interim two further planes have already been through. All three are Baslers, which are converted DC-3 airframes, which would have been flying during the Second World War but the conversion adds turboprop engines and a major overhaul of most of the planes apart from the airframe itself. Operated by ALCI, an independent logistics operator, the planes are on flying in to support the multinational bases to the north-east of here in the Dronning Maud Land.

Refuelling at the Skiway

One of those planes, which ALCI are also operating, is the new Polar V, the latest plane to join the AWI's (German Antarctic program) operations. It will operate out of Neumayer, about 800 km north of here and our nearest companions during the winter. Painted in the AWI's usual stunning livery, their Basler cuts an impressive sight against the white polar background.

Polar V

We will see a lot more of the first two (all-white) Baslers over the summer as they will shuttle in several flights of BAS personnel from the Russian base at Novolazarevskaya on the north tip of Dronning Maud Land, which is connected to Cape Town by a large Aleutian transport plane. It is unusual for many people to come in much earlier than the Shackleton, the BAS logistics ship, but given the busy season ahead the extra month should make a difference in getting the base ready for the start of the Halley VI build.

More Steel Work
Jim and I back at work on the Laws legs

Going back to the arrival of the first plane, with Ant (our chef) preparing to head off on the last winter trip, I found myself in the kitchen, admittedly cooking for a worryingly large 28 but in amongst the mail was a 10kg box of fresh vegetables. I had the privilege of cracking open the first iceberg lettuce, in preparation for our first salad in a long time, which despite the constituents long journey, was all in good shape.

Refuelling the Polar V

In the UK I find iceberg lettuces bland and disappointing but I hope I never forget the delight at ripping the heart of the lettuce open and smelling its unprocessed core, with the faint suggestion of their origins from a plot of soil somewhere. The texture of crunchy cucumbers and sharpness of fresh oranges also bore a novelty created by their prolonged absence.

Lettuce Worship

The photo above reminds me that the beard is going to have to come off before I return to civilisation, it may provide some warmth in the Antarctic but I think its days are numbered!

Moving the Drewry

With three extra vehicle mechanics, one of the first jobs was to move the Drewry (the summer accommodation building), a 60 tonne structure on skis. During the winter, as with everything else on the snow surface, it had started to disappear with a snow scoop nine foot high around it. Having carefully groomed and compacted the snow with two John Deere tractors and four 'dozers the move was all done in a morning.

Preparing for Field Science
Ryan and Toddy about to set off base

Better weather, meant more successful flights on base for Tom with his UAV experiment, which I have been putting my bulk behind as part of the take-off procedure. With the prerequisite number of flights completed on base, it was time to take off into the field.

Waiting For the UAV to Return
Sno-Cat K24 acts as the specially adapted flight centre for the off-base UAV flights

The goal of the project has always been to fly the plane over sea ice to understand better the transfer of energy between the ice and the lower atmosphere. However, if the UAV were to go down, it would be irretrievable hence the desire to first prove the system works in the Antarctic in the proximity to base.

The UAV Approaching to Land

Tom has had a long and at times frustrating winter overcoming problems with the UAV, that are unique to the Antarctic, mainly related to the limitations the cold places on the whole system. In the process there have been a handful of crashes and lengthy repairs to three of the four UAVs he brought with him. Hence, there was great excitement when it completed its first autonomous flight out over the ice and returned from its 20+ km round trip intact.

The Misfits Photo
L-R: Me (Doc), Dean (Comms), Sune (Field Assistant), Ant (Chef)- photo by Dave Evans

As well as the main Winterer's photo, there is a burgeoning tradition for the science platforms and the technical services team to each take a group photo to hang in their various workplaces. Not to be outdone that left four of us who work off the Laws with no photo to join hence the tongue-in-cheek team photo out by the signpost.

Altocumulus Over the Signpost