Sunday, December 12, 1999

Out on a wire: Electronics techs keep McMurdo grounded

Published in the Antarctic Sun

Airplanes are flying and weather reports are coming in. Making it all possible are a small group who have their feet firmly planted on the ground.

Behind the scenes of the weather and air-traffic-control operations in Antarctica is an unsung team of electronics technicians who keep all the equipment running properly.

They’re part of the Aviation Technical Services contingent in McMurdo Station. Led by Mike Rugg, the team has two major elements.

Out at the airfield, there are the “Ice Elecs,” who keep the radios and navigational instruments working for the proper operation of the airport. They also maintain the weather equipment that records conditions at the runway, which often differ greatly from the situation in town.

And in MacTown, there are the “Mac Elecs,” who work with the air-traffic-control and weather instrumentation here and across the Ross Ice Shelf.

“It’s probably the best job on the continent,” said Jon Shields, the supervisor of the team in town.

They travel to Williams Field and automated weather system sites, he said, to install and maintain equipment. They also have some flexibility about where they work. Devices need to be
checked in a number of nearby locations. Shields likes being able to choose where he’ll stop by next.

Like a lot of material in Antarctica, the equipment isn’t necessarily all that modern, but it’s functional and durable, which is more important.

A few years ago, one team’s members invented and built an instrument for the air traffic control group. There’s no book for it, and no spare parts. But it’s still working.

Even for things which do have manuals, the parts occasionally aren’t handy. Technicians sometimes have to look at the spare bits and pieces they have lying around and make repairs with them.

In addition to repairs, the electronics technicians have recently been installing automated weather stations around the Ross Ice Shelf to help meteorologists measure and predict weather at McMurdo and the airfield.

They put in 10 stations last week after waiting two weeks for the weather to clear enough to fly. One of them took seven hours to put in, drilling and chipping through ice, but most of them take
between 60 and 90 minutes, since they’re installed in snow.

In preparing to move the airstrip from the sea ice to Williams Field, the runway technicians have been setting up and testing the navigational aids pilots need to land and take off.

“Things have been going pretty well,” said Larry Lainey, the team leader at the runway.

Lainey is happy that they now have two control towers and two navigational beacons. It means they’ve had a spare of each this season, and will have a spare when the move to Williams is complete.

But the crucial difference, Lainey said, is that they can have both runways fully functional at the same time when the move is taking place. In previous years, they’ve had to take down the control equipment at the sea ice runway, move it to Williams, and set everything up again.

Now they can set things up at Williams Field ahead of time and be ready when the move happens.

Weather is a factor in this, too. While the buildings are being dragged to their new location, they have no heat. This can cause problems trying to use the equipment right away in the new site.

“Electronic equipment works a whole lot better when it’s had a chance to warm up and get to a stable temperature,” Lainey said.

The electronics technicians have an unusual job, in that if they do their work properly, nobody knows they work; all the instruments just run well. But when things go wrong, they’re the ones in demand. Usually things work well, but it’s rarely just one piece of gear which goes down at a time.

“Everything breaks at once,” Shields said. But then, usually, it gets fixed quickly and the technicians can return to maintenance, upgrades and new installations.