IceBite Blog: Flying to Antarctica

Andrew Jackson (l) and Kris Zacny on our Business Class flight to Antarctica! We even had flight attendants! Luxury before the cold. :) Credit: M. Marinova

The plane taxis past the domestic terminal, the Air New Zealand jets parked at their gates. I look out the window, from my business class seat: It’s a beautiful day outside. And with this we accelerate down the runway and take off from Christchurch, New Zealand, to McMurdo, Antarctica! Surreal? – Yes. Amazing? – Yes. :)

While we normally fly to Antarctica on military C-17 flights, this year there are also 8 flights on the Airbus 319. The back seats are taken out to fill the plane with extra fuel and cargo, and we get to sit up front in business class. But in reality, nobody cares about the big seats – the real treat is that we get windows! And on a beautiful day like today, those windows are priceless! While the large military transport planes are really neat, they have no windows. It’s a really exciting to be able to see the beautiful Antarctic landscapes below us!

After a few hours of flight, we cross the Antarctic Circle, and are flying over land. The sights are breathtaking! Only a few rugged peaks and edges stick out – the rest is white. But there is so much texture in the white! Everyone is glued to the windows, speechless.

I go up to the flight deck, and the pilots are happy to talk about what we see. Over there is the Italian base and the longest glacier tongue in the world. They go on to talk about stories of when they flew some smaller staging airplane for the field teams. It seems surreal to be on this adventure – a combination of really cool science and engineering, and so many new things to see and experience! What a perfect combination!

The longest glacier tongue in the world. As this glacier flows into the ocean, instead of breaking off into icebergs, it keeps flowing outwards on the water for a long, long way. Credit: M. Marinova

Landing of our big and heavy plane on the sea ice at McMurdo. The underlying ice is about 7 feet thick, the height of a tall basketball player! It’s an amazing example of just how strong ice is. The Airfield arrangement, a C-130 military plane, and Mount Erabus – smoking a little bit – are visible. Credit: M. Marinova
Antarctic mountains from the plane. So very beautiful! The pictures just don’t do the landscape justice. Credit: M. Marinova

We arrive at McMurdo, and quickly the thoughts of adventure and new places are replaced by the urgency to get everything going – a lot still needs to be done for us to be able to leave for the field and to have everything work! We quickly find where our rooms are and carry our luggage across base to the rooms.

Next, we rush over to find our lab space, check what’s already there, and for the missing boxes we go to Science Cargo to see if they can track them. We mail all of our science equipment to Port Hueneme in Southern California, and then they forward on our boxes to New Zealand by either ship or airplane. From Christchurch to McMurdo, the boxes fly on the military C-17 or the Airbus flights.

We find that most of our equipment is here or will arrive within the next 5 days – what a relief! Tomorrow we’ll be putting together the permafrost drill and making sure it works, as well as starting to gather all the rest of our gear. We still have to do environmental protection training, lab safety training, check on our tents and personal equipment, and of course get the rest of our science equipment, test it, and repack it for the helicopter flights. Lots to be done! But with every look out the window at the beautiful sea ice, the rugged mountains, and the never-tiring sun in the sky, I get a shot of new energy and enthusiasm!

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