Ice Flight!

[Pictures now online at http://picasaweb.google.com/david.cohn/20101030Iceflight]

0915 NZDT

Last night, by the time I’d turned off the lights, three different pieces of paper had been slipped under my door, each amending our shuttle time. I asked the front desk for a 5:15 wake up, figuring that they’d adjust it appropriately if USAP called to amend it again. Woke up on my own at 4:45 – I don’t think I’ve ever slept until my alarm when there’s a morning flight to catch – showered, shuffled everything in my bag one more time, and dragged the assemblage down to the lobby, where a few other early birds were waiting.

Shuttle dumped us off at the USAP Travel Center, and I followed the OAEs (remember, that’s “Old Antarctic Explorers” – local for those who have been through this before) through the routine we’d been briefed on. Carbon tags on any “leave in NZ” items, light blue on the checked bags, orange tag goes on the boomerang bag. We pull our ECW gear out of the duffels and stuff our carry-on in. Carhardt pants and bunny boots on, Big Red over our shoulder, then was time for the march to check in. Standing on the scales in your ECW is one of the rituals I kept hearing people talk about so – shameless tourist that I am – I handed my camera to the army-fatigue-clad woman behind the counter and asked for a picture.

We had a few minutes in the lounge before it was time to load up; I dashed across the way to grab a bowl of fruit salad (freshies! I hear we’re going to miss “freshies”), then settled into the lounge for the safety briefing video.

And then it was time to load up. Through the x-ray machine, onto the bus, and out to our plane. As it turns out, I was too eager to board. First through the x-ray means first onto the bus. We’ve been asked to load back of the bus first, which means it works like a stack instead of a queue: first-in, last out. Angela realizes this at the door and takes a few minutes outside, staring at the low clouds before climbing aboard; others simply ignore the request and grab the front row, the better to be positioned for a choice of seats in the plane.

Rumors about the C-17s being reserved for cargo proved true – but there one was on the tarmac, lights flashing, humming away in its awesome immenseness. Soooo cool. And not ours. The bus taxied right past it to deposit us at an Airbus A319 a little farther up the ramp. Yes, we’re flying to the ice on a completely ordinary airliner. Disappointment, but only a little. Because, OMG OMG OMG – we’re going to the ice!

As it turns out, there are some distinct advantages to flying the Airbus. Yes, it lacks the coolness of a military monster plane, but it’s fast (knocks over an hour off the flight). And it’s quiet (no earplugs needed). And comfy – instead of sitting on the floor, bouncing around cargo webbing, most of us are reclining in first class seats. The flight attendants offer us coffee, tea and lovely little bag lunches while we peer listlessly out the windows at the sea below. Or (in the case of some – ahem – more ambitious passengers), plonk ourselves down next to the cockpit jump seat and chat up the Aussie flight crew. Now that is the best seat in the house!

Three hours in, we start to see sea ice. Then mountains poking through the clouds. Then coastline, and big rocky peaks dropping off into the ice. Then Erebus, smoking in the afternoon sun. At least I think it’s the afternoon sun – it apparently always looks like this now. Then down, down, closer to the ice. A sound I’ve never heard before as the tires spin up against the skiway and we come rumbling to a stop. We’re here.

[Feels like total awesomeness at McMurdo. Alien planet, but awesomeness. You mean, I’m allowed to just walk around here on my own?]

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