Sunday, November 12, 2000

A long journey for three little planes

Published in the Antarctic Sun

Nine people and three small planes recently arrived at McMurdo Station after a journey of over 11,000 miles (17,700 km) from Canada to spend four months flying in the Antarctic.

Each year, three de Havilland Twin Otter airplanes owned and operated by Kenn Borek Air travel from the company’s base in Calgary, Alberta, through North and South America and across Antarctica to support the U.S. and Italian programs on the Ice.

This year the planes left Calgary on Oct. 23 and flew to Boise, Idaho, where two were inspected before continuing on to Houston, Texas, where they spent the night before flying to Grand Cayman Island for the second night of the journey. The trip affords them a luxury they don’t have in Antarctica.

“Every night we go out for dinner and relax,” said Kenn Borek’s chief Antarctic pilot Sean Loutitt.

Leaving Grand Cayman, they flew the three planes over Panama and on past the Equator to Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Though government procedures in that area of the world can be difficult to deal with, three similarly-painted planes get friendly attention.

“They’re pretty smooth for us,” Loutitt said, though he noted that Ecuadorian officials inspect the planes carefully with drug dogs.

After a night in Ecuador, they leave the next morning for Arica, Chile, just over the border from Peru.

“We don’t land in Peru,” Loutitt said. “It’s hard to get landing permits.”

But they do just fine in Chile, with help from a few locals, including an air traffic controller who assists with paperwork.

“We seem to have built a good network of friends in Chile,” Loutitt said.

After a night in Arica, they normally fly halfway down the length of Chile to Puerto Montt.

This year the pilots were in a bit of a hurry to make it to McMurdo as soon as possible to start work. They continued to Punta Arenas, an extra 800 miles (1,200 km).

In Punta Arenas, they changed into their cold-weather clothes. They learned the weather was bad at Rothera, the British Antarctic Survey base on Adelaide Island, their next stop.

After a day’s layover, strong headwinds made what is normally a six-hour flight take eight hours. The winds, Loutitt said, included a 50 mph (80 kph) direct headwind, and crosswind gusts of over 80 mph (129 kph).

The gravel runway at Rothera is normally covered with snow in October, but this year it was not. Instead of just changing landing gear from wheels to skis on the snow-covered gravel runway, they had to shuttle planes one by one to a glacier runway for the conversion.

“Nine of us were working on this for 12 hours,” Loutitt said.

After Rothera, the usual flight path calls for the planes to refuel at Patriot Hills before continuing to the South Pole. This year, though, two of the three went directly to the Pole, while one
stopped at Patriot Hills to refuel and check the fuel cache the U.S. Antarctic Program maintains there.

All three made it to the Pole that day, Nov. 1, but then the weather came in.

“The next morning we woke up and couldn’t even see the airplanes,” Loutitt said.

Two days later the fliers were able to make it to McMurdo to begin the season’s work, which will include flying over 100 hours per month, supporting deep-field camps and aerial surveying
projects. One plane continued north to the Italian station at Terra Nova Bay.

At the end of the season, the planes will fly back to Canada again to work during the boreal summer before coming back down again next year.

“It’s a trek,” Loutitt said. “It’s actually kind of fun.”

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