In the Still of the Night

McMurdo Station at about 2pm local time, as seen from Hut Point

Remember back in March when I made such a fuss over LastFlight, including posting video of the final plane leaving McMurdo until WinFly in August? Well, things change. Stuff happens.

You may already have heard it on the news (it’s likely to be picked up by the media unless something juicier catches their fancy… done any sexting lately, Anthony Weiner?), but today we had a rare winter medevac.

One of the community here at McMurdo fell seriously ill a couple weeks ago. Usually, when Serious Medical Things happen here, such as a heart attack, there isn’t enough time even to consider a medevac. In this case, however, it was determined that the individual was in a life-threatening situation but that there was a window of opportunity to get her to Christchurch for treatment.

Since the runway is not intended to be used from early March till late August, it’s not exactly spic ‘n’ span in June. Working long hours, the folks down here who maintain our roads and the runway made it happen in a record five days… previously, the fastest prep time was nine days. Getting the runway groomed was an enormous undertaking. Because planes, especially big planes like a C17, do not enjoy landing on messy ice.

The weather gods also smiled on the endeavor. We’ve had several clear but cold and–this is key–calm days. We heard this morning that the C17, flown in from Hawaii, had left Christchurch. It happened to be my day off, so I walked down to Hut Point shortly before it was scheduled to arrive.

It was minus 34 F but still, with less wind than I can ever remember down here, except for that freakish day in summer when it was more than 40 degrees and sunny and all of us were melting. As I walked the scant half-mile to the hut, I was wondering if the plane had been delayed, or if weather between here and the Real World had forced it to boomerang (return to Christchurch). I’d heard that ash from the Chilean volcano meant the plane would have to fly lower and slower, which might make it up to an hour late.

I was just considering whether I’d be willing to wait a whole hour to see it when, over Hut Ridge, I saw a fantastic sight. In the dark, star-filled Antarctic night, there appeared a cluster of lights, one white in front, with blinking red behind, coming in low over the Ross Sea towards the ice shelf.

Even though I knew what it was (“De plane! De plane!”), I still felt a moment of wonder and  puny humanishness. I reached Hut Point in time to watch it land smooth as buttah–at least from my vantage point.

There was no way to get a photo, and not much to see, quite frankly, once it set down at Pegasus, the airstrip out on the ice shelf, some fourteen miles from town. But still I stayed, enjoying the lack of wind and, even more, the light. To the south, it was still dark. But to the north the horizon was smudged with red and orange and yellow and cerulean, a hint that the sun is indeed making its way back to us. I didn’t see any auroras, but it was still beautiful in the vast, uncompromising way only Antarctica can be.

After about an hour, my hands informed me, in no uncertain terms, that it was Time To Go. I started heading back, wondering how much longer the plane would be there. I’ve heard the C17s have a fixed amount of time they can stay on the ground before things that really shouldn’t freeze start freezing.

When I looked over my shoulder, I had my answer. The plane had already taken off, and was flying northward again, a lone sign of puny humans aloft above the endless ice, snow and black rock.

I wish the best for those aboard–both the patient and the crew, who took not inconsiderable risk getting here and both landing and taking off using only night vision goggles.

Oh, and the crew was not the only thing on the plane coming down here… also aboard: freshies and package mail! Silver lining folks, silver lining.

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One thought on “In the Still of the Night

  1. Pingback: Finally: You Can Tell Me Where To Go « Stories That Are True

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