One of the (many) perks of this job is the opportunity to get out and about in the skies above Antarctica. Throughout the summer season, BAS Twin Otters are constantly hopping between our various bases and science field camps, restocking and refueling them. Whilst the planes technically only need a single pilot, it is much safer for them to carry a passenger as well – if for any reason the plane gets stuck at a location, or (heaven forbid) crash-lands, then two people can travel and camp much more safely than one. The upshot of all of this is that a willing volunteer can find themselves ‘copiloting’ a flight over Antarctica with the greatest of ease.
For me, the call-up came at the end of a busy morning. I was urgently dispatched to collect some warm clothing, my P-bag (containing sleeping kit, in case we were benighted at our destination, a reasonably common occurence when the weather deteriorates rapidly), grab a sandwich from the kitchens and run down to the hangar. I was needed to copilot the second flight of the season down to Fossil Bluff, a summer-only base further down the peninsula that exists mainly as a fuel depot for planes heading further South into Antarctica.
I arrived at the hangar, puffing and blowing in the thin Antarctic air and was given a quick tour of the aircraft by Al, the pilot. The key message that I took away from this was that most of the available safety exits opened out near the propellers, so even if you survived an Antarctic crash-landing and hauled your battered body out of the nearest exit, there was still a reasonable chance of being chopped into small pieces by the prop.
The next few minutes were spent loading up the aircraft with drums of fuel, a fire-fighting sledge for use down at the depot, and various other bits and pieces that had been left behind when the base was opened up earlier that week. With loading complete, the doors were closed up, we climbed into our seats in the cockpit and Al started running through the various pre-flight safety checks. He admitted to feeling slightly stressed, having been put through his paces earlier that day during a training flight with the BAS chief pilot, so it was reassuring to see him methodically go over all of the instruments and controls.
With the checks complete, we taxied out onto the Rothera runway and without further ado, he pushed the throttle forward and the little plane started rolling. We were in the air remarkably quickly – we hadn’t even made it halfway down the runway – and immediately Rothera dropped away below us as we climbed to cruising height over the choppy waves and scattered icebergs of Marguerite bay. Craning over my shoulder, I could see the base, which I still thought of as being large and sprawling, becoming a reassuringly tiny and insignificant speck amongst the icy mountains of Adelaide Island.
Once we’d climbed to cruising altitude, Al said nonchalantly ‘OK, so we’re stable now – can you hold her steady at 5000 feet while I do some paperwork?’. Gulping quietly (so as not to alarm him), I grabbed the controls and took over. Initially, it was like driving a car but with far more dials to keep an eye on; I found I could hold the course steady, but then we’d start losing altitude, or I would carefully maintain us at 5000 feet and later find that were 10 degrees off course. However, with a bit of practice, and a few tips from Al (who I was pleased to find was keeping one eye on events as he worked through the papers on his lap) I got the hang of it and found that flying planes in Antarctica wasn’t so difficult after all. Admittedly, there was still the odd moment when I leaned over to look at a particularly picturesque glacier out of the window and caused the plane to wobble off course.
Soon, we were over the sea ice – a vast, endless white plain with trapped icebergs dotted throughout. Every now and then we flew over a crack in the ice,through which the sea glinted up at us, only a few tens of metres wide but jagged, like lightning, and stretching for miles into the distance. After about half an hour the ice became more tortured, with heavily crevassed ridges indicating the junction between the ice and land, where the massive pressures on the ice-sheet had caused it to buckle and twist.
We were now flying down a valley, maybe 30-40 miles wide, with impressive ranges of mountains to each side. This was George VI Sound, the band of permanent sea-ice on which the camp is located. Al eventually managed to wrestle control of the plane back off me, and pointed out a tiny dot in the distance – this was Fossil Bluff. The dot resolved itself into a small melon hut, with a makeshift skiway landing strip marked out alongside with black flags. We dropped rapidly towards the camp and I watched a couple of tiny stick figures waving to greet us as Al pulled off a neat landing, bumping us along the rugged snow surface until we reached the hut.
It was a stunning situation. The small hut is in the lee of the mountain, with a panoramic view out over the Sound, framed by the distant mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula. The sky was a crystal clear blue and it was a crisp -14 Celcius, considerably colder than Rothera when we left. The hut’s two residents, who had been dropped off earlier to open up the camp, headed out to greet us, and we enviously admired their accommodation before unloading the cargo onto waiting skidoos. Time was short – it was 4pm and Al was worried about the weather deteriorating – so rather than hanging around we climbed back aboard and started bumping off back down the skiway. The take-off was bone shaking, followed by a steep climb and a hard bank to the left to head back towards Rothera.
The flight home was magical – some wispy clouds had appeared, so we cruised at a lower altitude to keep an unobscured view of the ice below. The sun was now lower in the sky and had tinged the horizon to the West with an orange glow, making the seawater visible through the leads in the ice sheet glint and shimmer in the evening light. Eventually the Rothera runway materialised out of the haze and Al banked sharply to the West to line the plane up. The landing was smooth and uneventful, and we taxied onto the apron to be met by the welcoming aircrew. As I climbed out of the plane, I reflected on the incredible good fortune that had resulted in me doing this job and, to pile glory upon glory, to be paid for it as well!