Trouble at the Airport
As US airports across the country dig out from massive snowstorms and attempt to catch up from the cancelled flights over the holiday weekend, we at McMurdo are having our own runway troubles. There are numerous intracontinental flights per day and at least three intercontinental flights from Christchurch, NZ every week that land at the annual sea ice runway, Pegasus runway or Willy’s Field Runway depending on the plane and time of year. Unfortunately, without a safe runway on which to land the C-17 military jet, T.J. will be spending New Years in Christchurch.
As ironic as it sounds, most of the runway issues arise from too warm of temperatures here at McMurdo. With the summer solstice recently behind us, the sun is at its most intense and the warm weather has caused the snow to “sink.” The last C-17 to take off from McMurdo left a hole in the runway. Because the runway is made of snow and ice, it takes a lot of people, time and good cold weather conditions to fix this. It then needs to be inspected to ensure that it is safe for planes to land. The next scheduled departure time from Christchurch is Sunday night at 11 PM. This will allow for a colder weather landing at 4AM on Monday morning. The plan is to do night landings and take offs until the weather cools.
Until now, I did not pay much attention to the fact that the runways are made of ice and require constant monitoring and adjustments for safe landings. I have been unsuccessful in finding a lot of information about the current runways, but I have pieced together some interesting facts.
Pegasus Field is on Ross Ice Shelf approximately 15 miles from McMurdo and is the current “airport” in use. It is located in an area with little snow accumulation. This creates a firm runway on ice that allows wheeled planes to land, like the C-17 military jet that T.J. is scheduled to arrive on. The C-17s are flown out of McCord Air Force Base in Washington. According to the USAP website, Pegasus sits on approximately 110 feet of ice with compacted snow on top creating a white ice runway.
Willy Field is located in an area with more snow accumulation. It sits on 25 feet of compacted snow and 250 feet of ice. It is a softer runway and was previously used as a “skiway” for the ski-equipped aircraft. Rather than being made of ice, it is made of groomed snow. I believe that Willy’s field is now more of a backup runway and all flights are landing and leaving from pegasus. I think there are two different runways at Pegasus – one for the ski-equipped planes and one for the wheeled planes. Interestingly, Willy’s field has been moved three times since its construction because it is in a slow slide toward the sea (that is according to Wikipedia). The ski equipped planes are flown by the New York Air National Guard. They support Greenland research when not in Antarctica.
And the final runway in use during the early season is the seasonal ice runway. This is the runway I have used for all of my flights. It is on the seasonal ice, so can only be used early in the season. It is closer to McMurdo making it more convenient for the runway crew and passengers.
As you can imagine, runways on ice and snow create some unique challenges. One of the jobs of the firefighters is to keep the runway clear. This occasionally means encouraging a curious penguin or lazy seal to move out of the way of an incoming aircraft. Firefighters do have to request permission to approach the animals.
Sometimes the penguins are stubborn. Check out the video of a firefighter and stubborn penguin taken earlier this year (not by me):
This video has been shortened from its original length of almost four minutes! If you want to see the original, let me know.
Happy New Years!!