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Stauchy Blog » Blog Archive » Station Closing - Sunday, February 18th (JRS)

Station Closing - Sunday, February 18th (JRS)


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Today was quite the monumental day as far as spending a year at the South Pole goes. With temperatures hovering around -45 C, three flights came and went, and with them, the final group of summer crew left, leaving only the winterovers for the long 8-month push. Lots of hugs, a C-130 with contrails bellowing out behind, one final take off, an impressive low flyby, a waving crowd, and that was that, no more planes in or out for the next 8 months. “The Thing” has been watched, the darkness will soon come, the winter has begun. For more, higher-resolution pictures, see the gallery: Closing Gallery

The summer crew had been slowly trickling out, and about every other day or so, we would say goodbye to yet another friend that we made over the summer. Each flight had a toll on us. It’s been a weird time lately. About a month ago, the summer folks seemed to be becoming more and more ready to go. It all makes sense. They could start to see that the end was near and were excited about the next phase. Some were more constructive than others, but in general, the feel of the station was starting to go downhill. Then, about a week and a half ago, a hand full of “new” winterovers came in. Some had been here the previous winter and some were new to the ice. At this point, the moral of the station made a nice turnaround. The new folks were excited about the winter, and seemed to re-energize the winterovers who had been around all summer. In addition, the leaving summerovers were getting more excited about their vacation plans and less down about their jobs. It was an exciting time, except for the down times when we said goodbye to our friends.

For the past several weeks, management has been talking about the “soft” close. In the past, the station has closed around Feb. 15, and the “hard” close was scheduled to be on Feb. 17 (Saturday). The “soft” close would consist of about 25 people who would stay after the hard close date. They would need to be ready on a few hours notice, and as soon as the temperatures started dropping towards -50 C, they would jump on a plane and the station would close. This way, we could keep several of the more crucial summer-overs for as long as possible.

But, after all this talk, when Saturday came, the decision was made by the Air National Guard, NSF, and Raytheon for the soft closers to leave on the same day as the hard close. Unfortunately, the weather in McMurdo was bad, so no flights came or went on Saturday. So, the plan was to have three flights on Sunday (we normally don’t have any flights on Sunday). After today, there will be no more flights for the winter (primarily due to temperatures) until the station reopens in the Spring. The hard closers would leave on the first flight, the ARFF (the “firetruck” that’s used by the firefighters whenever a plane is on the ground here, just in case there’s a fire) would go on the second flight, and the soft closers would leave on the third flight. While we were still sleeping on Sunday morning, an all-call announcement was made that the first flight had left McMurdo, with a South Pole arrival of 10:30. So, I set the alarm, just to make sure we wouldn’t miss it. We got up and were getting ready when the announcement came on that the flight was 20 minutes out.

So, we went to the galley to grab a bite to eat (although the tender loin and salmon didn’t seem appealing since we had just gotten up), then headed out to see the flight land and try to watch them unload the cargo “military style”. This involves opening up the rear hatch and just pushing pallets out directly on to the taxiway. This allows cargo to avoid driving a loader up behind the plane, practically blinded by the contrails. At about -43 C and colder, the turbo-props create a contrail, even when the plane is on the ground (a contrail is the white cloud-like trail that you can see behind a plane when it is flying over, way up in the sky). This contrail creates a thick foggy cloud behind the plane. It’s very cool to watch.

On our way out to the flight, Andy, the Winter Site Manager, told me that I needed to get a few Fire Brigade members to sit in the old ARFF and take over for the fire fighters on the final flight (since the professional firefighters were leaving on that flight). When we got to the flight line, we learned that Lynette would be needed to work the flights as a fuelie; the second one to train on transferring the fuel to the fuel arch, and the third to be responsible for the transfer (since the regular fuelies were leaving on that flight). So, all of the sudden, we were both in for a long, busy day. The first flight landed and, sure enough, there were big contrails coming out of the turboprops. But, apparently they didn’t have any cargo, which was a bummer because I was hoping to see it come barreling out of the plane and get some video and photos of it. I watched the cargo operations behind the plane for a bit, which was really cool looking with the fogginess.

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I then went over to the passenger terminal and joined Lynette in saying goodbye to the folks that were leaving. I also recruited Emrys and Sven to help me with firefighter patrol for the final flight. The passengers loaded up, a bit quicker than usual, since there was no cargo off-load, and there wasn’t any fuel transfer. We waved our goodbyes and watched as the plane took off, again an impressive site because of the contrails.

After it left, Lynette hung out with the fuelies to get up to speed on setting up for a fuel off-load to the fuel arch. Emrys, Sven and I joined the firefighters and helped them unload the ARFF of all their gear since it was going out on the next flight. Lt. Will went over some of the procedures with us, just in case something happened during the last flight. We then loaded up the old ARFF (which is going to stay at the Pole for the winter) and he showed us how to operate the fire hose. When we were done there, we went inside to warm up a bit and get something to eat before the last flight was due an hour later.

When we got the announcement that the flight was 20 minutes out, Emrys, Sven and I went to don our bunker gear and headed towards the skyway. We met the firefighters on the way, who gave us a ride from the station to the passenger terminal area in the old ARFF (the new ARFF was on its way back to McMurdo by this time). We hung out near the terminal while the flight was coming in, with a few people starting to gather for the last hoorah.

The flight touched down, so Sven jumped in the driver’s seat, Emrys in the passenger seat, and myself in back. Lynette was on the wing position to marshal in the plane. Her job is to guide the point person who was in front of the plane, giving signals to the pilot. On point were Cathy and Jon-O, the fuelies (whose usually takes care of the marshaling). Each had a huge glove on as the guided the plane in. It came to a stop, and Sven positioned the ARFF in front of the plane so that we had a good view of what was going on with props, as well as anything that might happen behind the plane.

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We each took turns running over to the terminal area to say our last goodbyes. As Emerys was returning to the ARFF, the passengers started the boarding process, so Sven had to run up and catch people on the way to the plane. Everyone boarded, and after a brief search for an unaccounted for passenger (someone had snuck on the plane without checking out with Lynette, whose other responsibility was to make sure everyone was on the plane), we pulled off the skyway so that the plane to taxi for takeoff. We got quite a show as the plane turned around and blasted contrails in our direction. After it had left the taxi area, Sven pulled out to a good position for watching the takeoff. Before we knew it, the engines roared from the plane, which was hidden by the fog that it had created.

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It rushed by in front of us and took off a ways down the runway. The Dark Sector was completely obscured because of the contrails. The wind was blowing in that direction, and we watched as the buildings came slowly into view, one by one. It was a pretty cool sight. At about the time we could see all of the buildings, we saw the plane circling back, aligning with the skyway in the opposite direction. We got an announcement over the radio that the plane would be doing a low flyby, and about 30 seconds later, it flew by, about 500 feet above the skyway. Cool stuff!

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Everybody started trickling towards the station while Sven did a victory lap up the skyway (which is no longer off limits) and back around to the building where the ARFF is kept. At that point, we decided to get some pictures by the Pole while we had the truck and we were in our gear. Lynette jumped in and we drove over to the Pole where she took a bunch of pictures.

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We then dropped Lynette off by the flight line so that she could help with a fuel transfer from the flight line tank to the fuel arch. We then rode over to the station so that we could unload all of the equipment that was on board. After unloading, we took the truck to its garage where it will spend the winter. It was a little freaky being responsible for dealing with a plane fire, but luckily it was uneventful, which actually made it fun.

We headed in to the station and finished putting the gear away. Lynette and I spent some time getting our new bedroom ready. The room we stayed in over the summer is on a wing that is going to be used as a refrigerated storage area over the winter, so we have to move. The first step was to take down the soft wall that divides our two rooms (since there’s two of us, we get two singles). That was a serious pain in the butt, but with Andy’s help, we got the dividers out and moved down the hall. We then took on the task of arranging our furniture. We had learned a lot of lessons from the summer, and we also had the newer, nicer furniture, so we’re quite a bit better off now.

At that point, it was time to play volleyball, so we meet up with some people in the gym for yet another session. I had to break up the game early in order to get over to ARO and take care of my instrument before dinner. I got back just in time to grab some Hillshire Farms meat and cheese with Lynette and head to the galley where they were holding the annual station closing tradition of showing The Thing. We munched on our dinner while the original was being showed. It was kind of cheesy, but it was fun to be a part of the tradition. After it ended, the newer (1982) version of The Thing, starring Kurt Russel, was shown. It was much more visually stimulating and frightening, and I was more entertained by that one. Lynette decided to skip out and do some moving instead.

Today was certainly a whirlwind, and it’s probably a good thing. Although we’re very excited about the winter season, we weren’t really looking forward to the last flight, just because of what it represented: no escape. Being so busy, I’m not sure that really sunk in, and I’m not sure if it ever will. Let’s hope not. The station definitely feels dead compared to the summer season, but it’s also filled with a nicer feeling of home. There’s been a lot of talk about looking forward to the time that the tourists leave, and in a way, that’s what it feels like. Almost like when company leaves. You’re sad that they’re gone, but it’s a nice feeling to have your home back to yourself, and to be able to go on about your usual business. 54 people in this station makes for a nice empty nest. It’s a little crazy to find ourselves at one of the harshest and most remote places on Earth, getting ready for the inevitable harshest time of the year. It’s not necessarily something I ever thought about doing when I was growing up, but it’s cool to see where life takes you sometimes. This should be an adventure!

-JRS

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