Ice and Medicine at the end of the earth

Flight Aborted

After only three days in McMurdo, I left Friday morning to catch a flight to WAIS Divide. Whereas most scientists languish in McMurdo purgatory, unable to escape, I was completing one of the mast rapid transits through McMurdo in history. This was obviously because I actually wanted to be in McMurdo to spend time with Jessie.

Five of us were heading out to WAIS Divide.

Ken Taylor – lead PI and my advisor

Mark Twickler – manager of the Science Coordinating Office

Matt Stan – NSF Videographer

Jeremy Polk – NSF Videographer

Despite snow and poor visibility in McMurdo, the flight was on.  The weather was better out at Pegasus runway, which is out on the ice shelf about 13 miles away. 

After a short wait while an engine was being tested and the cargo loaded, we got our safety briefing.  Unlike in a commercial airline, there are no overhead oxygen masks. Instead, there are plastic bags to put over your heads.  The plastic bags have a silicon gasket to seal around your neck and a canister of oxygen to sustain you.  Next, the pilot came over  and delivered some news – two people got to sit up front in the cockpit.  Jeremy and Matt were the lucky ones – one of the perks of being videographers.

Take-offs went smoothly and I settle into The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for a nice three hours of reading.  About fifteen minutes in, Mark taps me on the shoulder and points out the two load-masters standing on the cargo and looking attentively out at one of the engines.  Something was off, and we were not going to make it to WAIS Divide on this flight.

A few minutes later, the load masters got very active.  They were talking about a smell in the plane.  Then they were telling us to put the oxygen bags on.  I had watched the safety briefing, but I was basically incompetent when it came to getting the bag on.  It was stored on the wall of the plane behind my head (green). 

Twisting in my seat, I couldn’t get it out of the bag. Should I take my seat belt off to get in a better position? I never answered that question because the load master came over and handed me one.  He showed me how to open it, then opened it, and helped me put in on my head.  The last couple of breaths before I got the bag on, I could smell something. It was a faint smell of something like a little oil burning on a car engine.  After my bag was on, he then helped Mark get his on, all before getting one for himself.

The plane made a hard turn to head back to Pegasus and McMurdo.  I sat there breathing in my bag while the load masters put helmets and masks on and connected to oxygen supply hoses on the wall.  The intercom was turned on at some point, and an emergency checklist begun.  But there was no panic, and all engines were still working.  The pilots descended to an altitude where they could clear the air in the plane, though I wouldn’t know this was the procedure until after.

I just sat there, trying to control my breathing, and feeling pretty confident that all was under control.  As I waited, the bag became very inflated, rising up on my head.  It felt a little like my head was in a helium balloon.  The bag also became very warm and my face was sweating – part from the heat and part from nerves.  After a while (in turns out about fifteen minutes), the load master helped grab me another bag, and I successfully opened it and switched over.  It was much cooler and less inflated. 

A few minutes later, we landed.  We then began taxiing back.  That’s when it became clear that nothing major had happened – if it had been bad, we wouldn’t take the time to taxi!

After a few minutes of taxiing, we stopped and got the ok to get bags off our heads.  The air was nice, fresh, and cool.  We unloaded the plane and gave the thumbs up to the emergency response personnel waiting.  Unfortunately, one of the load masters who had helped me had some minor respiratory problems and had to be checked out.  Nothing serious, but it makes me even more appreciative for the help he gave me.

The flight crew handled everything very well and I feel very fortunate to have landed safely, even if back in McMurdo and not at WAIS Divide.  We were quickly scheduled on a different flight in the evening and might still make it out to WAIS Divide today.

This also led to a wonderful event.  Jessie was sent down from medical to check us out, showing up about two hours after the flight aborted.  Since all five us were fine, she hung out for a little while (fortunately, the first shuttle back to McMurdo was full).  And then Jeremy and mark saw a penguin.

We rushed outside and there was an Adelie penguin walking just beyond some equipment.  Both of our first Antarctic Penguins! And we got to see them together.

My flight leaves for WAIS Divide in another couple of hours and I leave happier now that I’ve had the penguin experience with Jessie and knowing how well the flight crew from the 109th handles problems.

Jessie’s Update:  This post was written by T.J. while waiting for his second flight to WAIS divide field camp.  He sent it to me on a jump drive to post today.  His flight left for WAIS at 8PM last night and he arrived safely at his new home.  



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4 responses

  1. Kristin

    Hooray! This post makes me SO happy! T.J. survived engine failure! T.J. saw a penguin! T.J.’s big red says Tyler! T.J. is standing next to Donovan, who has changed his name and accepted a job managing the Science Coordinating Office! I’m thrilled. Good luck out there!

    January 8, 2011 at 1:28 PM

    • That does look like Donovan!

      January 11, 2011 at 4:49 PM

  2. michelr

    this post gave me heart palpitations! i’m glad tj is safe and that you got to see penguins!

    January 8, 2011 at 3:03 PM

  3. Sumi

    What a sweet story! The penguin must be a good sign! Warm hugs to both of you : )

    January 8, 2011 at 4:19 PM

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