Attempting To Get Airborne In Antarctica

May 7, 2009

in Odds & Ends Stories

Having done quite a bit of traveling to date, I’ve experienced a number of oopsies, some the airline’s fault, some a passenger’s fault and some simply an act of God. These include getting hit up for a bribe by airport staff in Belem, Brazil in 1989, taking two days to get from Orlando, FL to Boston, MA during a blizzard, and so on.

However, probably the most fun I’ve had was at the hands of the US Navy when I was trying to leave McMurdo station (in the Antarctic) in 1991.

I was finishing up our second of three field seasons and had, along with my personal gear and some scientific samples, a half ton of seismic equipment that absolutely had to be in Bangladesh within two weeks. Problem was, we were snowed in and the Navy C-130s (outfitted with skis) could not land, and those on the field could not take off.

Finally, after about a week, I was told that I could get on a C-130 and head for New Zealand. My seismic equipment, however, would have to wait for another flight. Granted, in my youth, I was very naïve, but I was not this naïve, so I volunteered to bump myself from the flight and insisted that I not be put on a later flight unless my equipment was loaded as well. This got me a few evil looks from the sergeant in charge of cargo, but as far as I was concerned, I was doing her a favor.

A couple days go by and we’re all scheduled for a departing flight. The same sergeant tells me that she had to bump three people to accommodate my equipment, to which I replied, “I made arrangements for this gear to be flown out of here over a year ago, if you can’t figure out how to manage this in that amount of time, I have no sympathy for you.” Oddly, me, my gear and a couple colleagues make it onto the flight.

Now, the next problem is getting off the ground. The C-130 is overloaded due to the backlog and the runway, which is seasonal ice covered by a fair amount of fresh snow, is not very slick (remember that these are C-130 Hercules specially equipped with skis). We hear the engines rev and we roll. The only points of reference on the all-white terrain are a set of numbered flags, counting down from ten to one. Flag number one approaches and the pilot hits the brakes, does a one-eighty, and we roll again, with similar results. This performance repeats several times with one brief moment of optimism when the pilot actually manages to rotate the C-130, only to have the nose-gear hit the runway with a disappointing “thud.”

Enter the load master.

Typically, the load-master on a C-130 is a short, barrel-chested senior enlisted person of the male half of the human species; he doesn’t talk much, but he does a great job intimidating people with oh-so-harsh-but-subtle expressions. Ironically, he must have called in sick today because our load-master on this particular flight was the one and only female load-master in a ten-thousand mile radius.

…did I mention that she was in dire need of a sedative?

Chipper, happy, cheerful – a real pain in the posterior. She asked me and a colleague if we would mind coming aft with her. She then points at the loading ramp and asks if we would mind climbing as far up it as possible, preferably so we ended up right under the tail of the aircraft. This was to get some more weight aft and hopefully help the C-130 rotate and then get airborne. Naturally, there was nothing to strap ourselves to, so all we could do was grab something, anything, and hope that it wasn’t a 600 volt conduit (electrical, hydraulic and other critical parts are exposed as there is no decorative bulkheads in military aircraft). After a couple more runs down the runway, we finally get airborne.

On returning to my seat another of my travelling companions tells me that had we not made it into the air on that last attempt that the ground crew was going to strap some JATOs to the fuselage. These are solid rocket boosters and the C-130 can take up to (at least) eight of them, four per side. While this is great for giving an overloaded brute the kick it needs to get airborne, JATOs do have the unfortunate habit of exploding once in a while.

We make the (normally) eight hour return trip to Christchurch, New Zealand in no less than nine hours – and we had a tailwind!

Naturally, anyone in the military must have stories that far outstrip my own experience.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Roto13 May 25, 2009 at 2:25 pm

None of that really sounds like a big deal.

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Marta May 26, 2009 at 4:22 pm

Roto13, Have you nothing better to do than to post nasty comments about military personnel?

Grow up, get a life and get some manners while you are at it.

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Roto13 May 26, 2009 at 5:13 pm

Wow, what the fuck is your problem? I don't give an ass whether he's in the military or not. This isn't much of a story. God, I've been through much worse than this when flying and I don't consider any of my stories good enough to submit to this site.

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anon May 27, 2009 at 12:21 pm

I agree – not only is this not much of a story, but I really didn't like the part where the guy complained that the Load Master was female. Get a life. Who cares if the Load Master is male or female? As far as I can tell, she was smart and polite, because she figured out a solution to the problem and then asked you nicely to be a part of that solution.

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Anonymous May 29, 2009 at 2:07 pm

Why does everyone get so angry on this site. Calm down, its not the end of the world if someone disagrees with you!!!

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Frequent Flier June 1, 2009 at 7:32 am

But I don't like it when someone disagrees with me. It hurts my low self esteem (little penis), and my huge ego (mega gut).

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Atari August 4, 2009 at 8:51 pm

I don't think he was complaining about the female, given the fact that he seemed to be insulting the caricature of the male load master.

Anyone who is tired and hungry or frustrated can give credence to the fact that chipper people, during this time, seem really obnoxious. And women, undoubtedly, have a special knack for annoying men and other women, alike.

Furthermore, I did NOT comprehend the latter part of this story.

Did he say that he and two other guys had to go outside of the aircraft, climb onto the tail of it and hang on for dear life in order to add enough weight in the back so that the craft could lift off?

If so, how did they survive at thirty-seven thousand feet outside of the airplane, or was there some sort of hatch that allowed them back in?

Of course, I'm being tongue-in-cheek, but that's pretty much what it sounded like to me, despite my good sense telling me that such is impossible.

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Steve November 8, 2009 at 11:16 am

I don't believe the part about sitting up on the aft cargo door to move the CG. If that aircraft is that nose heavy, putting a few people aft isn't going to solve the problem, and yes, I know the CG moves significantly when cargo is placed aft but that wouldn't do it. If if the cg was just out of the aft most limit they probably would have just taken off since there is somewhat of a safety factor built into almost all the limitations of a C-130. I'm sure some of you have taken off out of limits, pilots/engineers can accomadate for this as long as their aware of it. It's a Herk, she'll get off the ground!!

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Alex Speer December 27, 2012 at 12:43 am

This is a lie you haven’t been able to fly to Antarctic to New Zealand since the late 70’s you can only fly from Hobart in Tasmania check your facts next time

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Kiwi June 29, 2015 at 6:35 am

Uh Alex Speer you need to check your facts – I live in Christchurch NZ, and we are one of the two bases capable of flying to Antarctica, the other being in South America.
You can drive past the Antarctic Centre at the airport and see all the pallets of gear that they fly down every year with the Hercules aircraft. Flying from Tasmania would take a lot longer!

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