A harsh continent.

As some of you may have heard in the news by now, we’ve had a tragedy unfolding in our neighborhood over the last few days. It’s easy to forget just how dangerous this place is when you spend so much of your time walking between heated buildings or hiking known paths, when the weather is mostly hovering right around freezing and the biggest complaints are about the sugar-free hot chocolate and crappy loo roll.

On the 24th of January, a station-wide email went out from our station’s NSF Representative, titled “Overdue Aircraft”:

All,

In the interest of keeping our Antarctic community informed, a twin otter aircraft transitioning between support of two foreign national programs has lost contact with Antarctic Communications and is currently missing in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains. The USAP was contacted late yesterday by the New Zealand Rescue Coordination Center in Wellington, NZ. The USAP Emergency Operations Center (EOC) has been activated and is assisting with the response.

There are already reports of the situation in the international press, and the NSF will be putting out a release shortly indicating our assistance in the overall effort. USAP personnel are reminded to direct any media requests to Mr. Peter West at the National Science Foundation and to be respectful about any use or sharing of information via social media.

George Blaisdell

NSF Representative

McMurdo Station

My friends and I were able to use the public media outlets to quickly establish that while it was a Kenn-Borek Air Twin Otter, it wasn’t one that was stationed at McMurdo.

One of our Twin Otters

One of our Twin Otters

Still, we did have KBA employees who worked with the ones aboard the missing plane – we all anxiously awaited updates and hoped for the best, although what news we were getting was making it difficult to stay positive. As far as we knew, the plane’s emergency beacon had been activated but the weather in the area was impeding any attempt at gaining visual contact by our LC-130 that flew over the last location of the beacon. What made this particularly eerie for me is that not a day earlier, I had been talking with my friend Asad whose Long Duration Balloon payload had finally come down, just on the other side of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains, on the way to Terra Nova Bay. He was talking about how he and his research team were going to be taking a Twin Otter to the location to retrieve it and I had jokingly asked if I could come along for the ride. As it turns out, the last known location of the missing plane, as given by the emergency beacon, was in the same general area as his payload.

The following morning, the station received another email:

The USAP Emergency Operations Center (EOC), in cooperation with the NZ Rescue Coordination Center in Wellington, NZ, launched a KBA Twin Otter at 4:30 am today to establish a search and rescue base camp at the CTAM (CentralTransantarctic Mountains) fuel cache site in the Beardmore Glacier area.

Due to continued poor weather in the area, the Twin Otter was unable to reach its destination and returned to a fuel cache site near the Darwin Glacier.

There are four highly experienced SAR team members on board the Twin Otter. A new attempt to reach CTAM will be made when the weather improves, hopefully in the next 24 hours.

USAP personnel are reminded to direct any media requests to Mr. Peter West at the National Science Foundation and to be respectful about any use or sharing of information via social media.

Elaine Hood

ASC Communications

Antarctic Photo Librarian

Education Outreach

It was around this point that Russell asked if I was ahead with my prep such that I had time to put together some hot food for the station personnel who were manning the EOC around the clock. So that became something I started doing at every meal – putting together some sandwiches, small portions of hot food, and whatever else I thought they might like and running it over to them. The “command center” was full of computers and maps and radios and people looking very tense as they tried to coordinate the efforts to overcome the challenges of weather in a situation where every minute could mean the difference between life and death..

Given what I had learned during Happy Camper, I figured if the crew had been able to set the plane down, and there weren’t any severe injuries, there was a good chance of them weathering the storm until our Search and Rescue (SAR) team could get to them. I was further encouraged by the fact that twin otters were renowned for being the best planes for Antarctica weather – it was, after all, twin otters that were able to pull off the impossible and stage mid-winter medical evacuations from the South Pole in 2001 and 2003.

The next day, Saturday the 26th, another station-wide update went out:

The USAP EOC, in cooperation with the NZ Rescue Coordination Center in Wellington, NZ, has begun launching flights to establish a base camp at CTAM by late this afternoon.

At approximately 11 am this morning the following aircraft left McMurdo:

  • two helicopters – to CTAM
  • one Twin Otter – to CTAM
  • one LC130 (with 25 fuel drums) – to CTAM
  • one Basler (with fuel and supplies) – to Moody fuel cache site

If the weather improves at CTAM, a second LC130 will launch at noon with an additional 25 fuel drums.

USAP personnel are reminded to direct any media requests to Mr. Peter West at the National Science Foundation and to be respectful about any use or sharing of information via social media.

We will continue to provide additional information as it becomes available.
Thank you for keeping all involved in your thoughts.

Elaine Hood

ASC Communications

Antarctic Photo Librarian

Education Outreach

This seemed particularly hopeful. It was also around this time that I noticed I hadn’t been seeing Ned, my Happy Camper FSTP instructor, at lunchtime. I was almost sure he was part of the Search and Rescue team that was setting up a base camp and for some reason, I was sure this meant we’d bring the crew back safely.

Sadly, on Sunday morning, the following email was broadcast:

AT 1510 LOCAL TIME, 26 JANUARY, LC-130 SK61 SPOTTED THE TAIL WRECKAGE OF THE MISSING TWIN OTTER ON A STEEP SLOPE NEAR THE SUMMIT OF MT. ELIZABETH IN THE TRANS-ANTARCTIC MOUNTAINS. THERE WERE NO INDICATIONS OF SURVIVORS, AND THE US/NZ RESPONSE TEAMS ARE IN CREW REST AT THE CTAM SITE. WEATHER REMAINS A CONSTANT CONCERN, BUT THE PLAN IS TO RECONNOITER THE SITE WHEN IT IS SAFE TO DO SO.

PLEASE KEEP YOUR THOUGHTS OF THE CREW’S FAMILY AND NUMEROUS FRIENDS, MANY OF WHOM ARE IN OUR COMMUNITY HERE, AS WELL AS OUR RESPONSE AND EMERGENCY OPERATIONS TEAMS IN MIND AS WE MOVE FORWARD IN THE COMING DAYS. ALL PERSONNEL ARE ADVISED THAT CONFIDENTIAL GRIEF COUNSELING IS AVAILABLE AT MCMURDO STATION THROUGH THE USAP CHAPLAINS (EXT.2511 OR 2550). NSF HAS ALSO REQUESTED THAT INDIVIDUAL AGENCIES ADVISE EMPLOYEES OF ANY COUNSELING SERVICES AVAILABLE THROUGH EMPLOYEE ASSISTANCE PROGRAMS.

AS STATED PREVIOUSLY, MEDIA REQUESTS SHOULD BE DIRECTED TO MR. PETER WEST AT THE NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION, AND BE THOUGHTFUL AND RESPECTFUL IN YOUR USE OF SOCIAL MEDIA.

TERRY

TERRY MELTON

NSF STATION MANAGER

On Monday, the station received a summary of the last six days:

At 10:02 PM on Wednesday January 23 Mac Center activated the McMurdo Emergency Operations Center (EOC) when a KBA Twin Otter was late on their hourly check-in. Approximately 15 minutes later the New Zealand Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) notified the EOC that they had received an Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) signal from an aircraft operated by KBA. The signal was transmitting from Mount Elizabeth in the Beardmore Glacier area, approximately 400 miles southwest of McMurdo. Due to poor weather conditions at the transmitting site no search activities could be initiated that evening.

On Thursday, with an improving weather forecast, a KBA Basler was launched to Mount Elizabeth. The Basler flew above the identified site for five hours but the crew was unable to see the site due to heavy cloud cover.

On Friday a KBA Twin Otter and a Basler were deployed, along with a PHI 212 helicopter and a New Zealand B3 helicopter, to the CTAM fuel cache in the Beardmore area, to search for the missing Twin Otter aircraft. The Joint (US/NZ) Antarctic Search and Rescue Team (JSART) was also sent to conduct rescue/recovery efforts when the site was located. A base camp for rescue/recover operations was established at CTAM.

The crew of an LC-130, Skier 61, spotted the downed aircraft as they departed CTAM at approximately 11:30 AM on Friday. There were no signs of activity outside the aircraft. Several aerial reconnaissance flights were completed on Friday and Saturday.

Utilizing helicopters on Sunday, members of JSART were positioned on a ridge approximately 300 meters above the crash site and made their way down to the exposed tail of the aircraft wreckage. The crash site was located at approximately 13,000 feet on a steep slope. There were signs of crevasses and avalanche activity in the crash area.

The JSART was able to recover some equipment from the plane, including the voice recorder which was located in the tail section of the aircraft. The aircraft was carrying a long-range auxiliary fuel tank inside the fuselage which crumbled upon impact thereby blocking access to the cabin area and leaking fuel inside the plane. The roof of the aircraft, along with additional debris, was crumbled into the cabin. In addition, the cabin was filled with, and surrounded by packed snow.

After evaluating information from the crash site, it was determined that the JSART team could not safely continue recovery operations. With this in mind the U.S. Antarctic Program and Antarctica New Zealand jointly decided to recall the JSART.

All EOC efforts are now focused on the safe return of the deployed support aircraft and JSART teams to McMurdo and Scott Base.

Al Martin

McMurdo Area Manager

It was a heart-wrenching email to receive and I couldn’t help but want to hug everyone in the EOC when I brought them food that evening – how upsetting it must be to have to switch mindsets from rescue to recovery! Further emails were sent to notify the station of arrangements made for memorial services to be held at both the South Pole and McMurdo and while I know some people questioned why we were holding a service for a crew that hadn’t even been stationed here, to me it seemed completely natural. This continent is vast vast vast and relative to size, there are very few people on it. We are a small community and we all face the dangers inherent to living here because it’s our job and yes, that goes for cooks, too – we fly those same planes to get to field camps and the South Pole.

In the first world, we really only ever glimpse the power of nature in freak instances – hurricanes and earthquakes and blizzards and such. For the most part, the developed world has figured out how to beat nature into submission: our planes will take off in storms, we buy snowtires and turn up the heat, we eat asparagus in December. Down here, we are largely at nature’s mercy in all of our endeavors.

This past week has been a sobering reminder that for all its beauty and wonder, Antarctica truly is a harsh continent.

Basler fly-over during the memorial ceremony.

Basler fly-over during the memorial ceremony.

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