That's One Frigid Ramp Check...
For the hundreds of researchers and support staff stationed at
the bottom of the earth, annual re-supply flights are a critical
necessity of life. Those flights, which bring much of the food,
clothing, and scientific supplies that South Pole researchers use
throughout the year, generally occur at the start of the Antarctic
summer -- late October to early November.
But before those flights can begin, an FAA Aviation Systems
Standards team must go in and certify the equipment that helps
pilots land their aircraft on the icy airfields that serve the
National Science Foundation's McMurdo Station -- America’s
primary Antarctic research center -- and other South Pole
the past, inspection crews and equipment have hitched a ride on
military C-130 transport planes to flight check the navaids that
allow pilots to land in bad weather, low-visibility conditions.
This year, however, the agency made history by flying the agency's
Challenger 601 to the South Pole, and conducting the entire flight
inspection on its own.
The FAA's Antarctic journey began nearly two years ago, when the
National Science Foundation formally requested that the agency use
its own aircraft.
There were several compelling reasons for the FAA to do so, said
mission pilot Bill Geiser. "The cost of a C-130 is way more than
one of the FAA jets," he explained. "Secondly, whenever we used a
C-130, it takes an airplane away from doing its primary mission of
supplying the South Pole."
So, in the fall of 2006, project lead Kirk Babcock began
studying the feasibility of sending an FAA Flight Inspection jet
into the icy wilds of Antarctica.
Babcock said he and his team began by analyzing potential safety
risks associated with the mission. "I can't even remember exactly
how many risk analyses we did, but we looked at every possible
scenario our plane could get into -- including the absolute worst
case scenario, in which we would get past our point of safe return,
bad weather would come in, and we'd have to land with no
Babcock admits he was among those who were initially skeptical
the agency could pull off such a feat. No one, he said, was more
surprised than he when his research increasingly began to bear out
the mission's feasibility. "It was so exciting to see that," said
Babcock, "because it really brought more people onboard."
By September 2007, Babcock had published a detailed guide for
South Pole operations, which served as a mission bible when the FAA
sent a Challenger 604 to McMurdo as part of a "test run" two months
later. "That not only involved preparing the pilots and crew, but
also determining whether our equipment would function properly,"
explained Geiser. "As it turned out, it all came together really
Buoyed by the success of this "feasibility flight," Babcock and
company dug in their heels, and began preparing for the real thing.
A crew was selected, and the agency gathered the spare parts and
backup equipment that would be needed should the aircraft have to
be repaired on-site.
It all came together on October 18, as Geiser -- along two other
pilots, one mission specialist, one mechanic, and one avionics
technician -- took off from Christchurch, New Zealand, on the last
leg of their journey to McMurdo Station.
During their week-long stay at McMurdo, the top safety priority
was to keep the plane warm, dry, ice-free, and ready to fly at any
moment. Not an easy task with wind chills causing temperatures to
plunge as low as -20 degrees Centigrade. "We really didn't want to
let the airplane get cold-soaked," said Geiser, "because when seals
get cold, you can run into leaks."
Both Geiser and Babcock were effusive in their praise for the
maintenance crews who worked around the clock, using portable
military heaters to warm both the exterior of the plane and the
cabin. Babcock was particularly impressed by the ingenuity
demonstrated by maintenance workers when they figured out how to
tap into the plane's own heating system to melt snow and ice from
the aircraft exterior, keeping it bone-dry.
"I'm still checking, but I think we may have created a couple
of records for having a corporate jet operate out of the South
Pole," beamed Babcock.
While the flight crew did experience some unique South Pole
phenomena -- including the "fata morgana" mirage that causes small
hills on the horizon to appear as large mountain ranges -- the
navaids inspections at Pegasus and Williams fields went off without
a hitch, as did the crew's stay at McMurdo Station.
"It's a lot like a military deployment," said Geiser, explaining
that while the station's accommodations are far from luxurious,
they are quite comfortable. Babcock noted that there were plenty of
activities available for team members during down time, including a
tour of "Scott's Hut," British explorer Robert Falcon Scott's 1912
South Pole headquarters.
Among Babcock's biggest surprises was the popularity of
McMurdo's "Frosty Boy" ice cream dispenser, which he said was a
favorite among station personnel. "You wouldn't think that," he
Geiser said the success of this mission clears the way for the
FAA to use its own aircraft for all future Antarctic flight