Sunday, December 5, 1999

Mac Center, nerve center

Published in the Antarctic Sun

Attention aircraft over Antarctica: this is where to report. Passengers and crews on U.S. planes and helicopters anywhere on the Ice rely on Mac Center for safety and information.

When things are going well at McMurdo Station, Mac Center is hopping. Helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft over much of the Antarctic continent are controlled from a small room in Building 165.

When things are going badly, the search-and-rescue team gathers here, as does the mass-casualty response team.

But most of the time, work at Mac Center is about air traffic control. Three thousand square miles of area, from sea level up tens of thousands of feet, are kept in order at Mac Center. And without radar, the controllers have to keep a mental picture of this huge region in their brains.

There are large areas of Antarctica which don’t have air traffic control, but the people in Mac Center have to keep tabs on those areas as well, since many of the planes crossing the continent fly through its area of control somewhere on the flight path.

Flights from Africa to Australia and New Zealand routinely cross Antarctica on great circle
routes; Qantas, Australia’s airline, offers sightseeing flights over Wilkes Land which sometimes
brush the edge of Mac Center’s responsibility range.

Juggling radios, telephones, and pencils, the people who work in Mac Center track everything, in their heads and on paper. There are route-checkpoint forms, radio-contact forms and weather updates which shuffle past the control desk.

“You have to do all this for each plane,” said air traffic control manager Dave Ferguson, gesturing at a set of papers including a long form with spaces for weather conditions, time, and flight direction, among other data.

It’s not self-contained. Telephone calls have to be made to Auckland when planes fly across 60 degrees south latitude, the northern boundary of Mac Center’s responsibility area. Pilots and controllers depend on reports from Mac Weather, the field camps and aircraft in the air for flying condition information.

Tapes are rolling the whole time, too. They’re used for quality control and for training, as well as providing backup in the event of an emergency, so investigators can try to piece together what happened.

Even when most of the planes are on the ground or out of Mac Center’s airspace and things are a bit slow, it is not the time to slack off. Someone might radio in any minute, needing information or help. Mac Center stands by.