Sunday, January 23, 2000

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a Hammerhead!

Published in the Antarctic Sun

It was a windy day out over the sea ice.

Coast Guard Lt. Tom McDevitt, the pilot, and flight mechanic Mark Henley were checking out sea ice conditions and “waving the flag” at the tourist ships in McMurdo Sound.

The pair made an efficient team. Henley’s suggestions were quietly worded questions, like “How much fuel are you leaving for the return trip?”

McDevitt answered, “400 pounds,” but later revised his plan, noting Henley’s implicit suggestion that the wind would be against them on the trip home.

The men are part of a 14-person Coast Guard helicopter crew temporarily stationed in McMurdo. Normally based either in Mobile, Alabama, or on one of the Coast Guard’s icebreakers, the team is now flying their two aircraft from a pad near the Chalet.

The crew, who call themselves the “Hammerheads,” but whose name is officially Aviation Detachment 146, started preparing for this trip in September. They did a lot of work on the helicopters, to be sure they’d be in top flying condition.

In October, the team flew to Seattle to meet up with the Polar Star for its cruise south. On the journey to Antarctica, they passed through areas of the Pacific Ocean that don’t normally get visits from the Coast Guard.

The helicopters flew off the icebreaker at various times to inspect ships in U.S. territorial waters, or to identify vessels suspected of smuggling drugs or illegal immigrants. Those tasks are major parts of the Coast Guard’s job, and even on a trip in international waters, information-gathering
helps U.S.-based crews enforce the law more effectively.

“We go to spots where most of our Coast Guard units don’t get to go,” said unit leader Lt. Cmdr. Rich Jackson.

As well, the ship and helicopters were always on call for rescue missions, had there been vessels in trouble nearby.

The trip to Antarctica and back takes six months. Jackson has planned for 300 hours of flying during that period, and expects to use it all. Some of it was spent on the way down, and some will be spent on the way back.

But most of the flying happens around Ross Island.

The helicopter crews are doing all kinds of work, from remote weather station maintenance to morale flights to the ice edge.

Most of their work involves support of the Polar Star, doing reconnaissance of ice conditions before the ship begins breaking ice, or ferrying people and equipment between the ship and the land.

“It’s probably the most demanding flying that we do in the Coast Guard,” Jackson said. The weather conditions and logistics make it much more difficult than flying from a ground station in the States. Not only do the helicopters have to carry skis on many missions over ice, but the crews need extra survival gear. Fuel-use margins are also stricter here, where weather can ground flights for long periods.

The ship can help, by positioning itself at a midway point in a long route, so the helicopters have somewhere to land if the weather turns ugly.

But even landing on the icebreaker can be very difficult: The ship’s hull is rounded for better icebreaking, but that means it rolls more in the waves than would a vessel with a sharper keel.

“We fly all over the world and sit there a while,” said rescue swimmer Steve Lurati, who has a brand of laconic sarcasm similar to the crew members. In a way, he’s right.

Jackson pointed out that Lt. Scott Craig, the engineering officer, much prefers scheduled maintenance to fixing broken equipment. So the mechanics work hard on regular preventive work and mostly avoid repairing parts on short notice.

Jackson also said this is the most motivated crew he’s worked with on the Ice, which helps because, as with everything in Antarctica, nothing goes exactly as planned.

“It’s never the same game twice,” he said.

The crew will be in McMurdo until the icebreaker departs with the Greenwave for the return journey to the U.S. The helicopters will fly off the breaker in San Francisco in April, and head back to Alabama.