As the summer draws to a close, the new Rothera winter team are being struck by a mix of emotions. In some ways it is a difficult time; close friends and colleagues that we have lived and worked with for the last few months are being extricated from Rothera by the plane-load. Each time the Dash-7 flies North to Punta there are emotional and sometimes tearful goodbyes. Some of the departing crew have been here for months and even years; waving goodbye to this lonely lump of rock on the edge of a continent is waving goodbye to an incredible, unique way of life to which they might never return, and bidding farewell to the friends that made this experience possible.
However, for those of us lucky enough to be staying around, there is also a sense of relief each time the plane departs, leaving the base that little bit quieter, and bringing us closer to the moment when the ship sails away and we are left with our self-sufficient team and six months of twilight. We are currently down to 40 people on station, a sub-critical mass which means that areas of the base that previously bustled with life are now eerily silent. Rules have been relaxed and work is slowly winding down as the big summer projects draw to a close. With fewer people and fewer distractions around, it is already noticeable that the team are drawing closer together, forming the bond that is essential for seeing us safely through the lonely months ahead.
The exodus began at the end of February as, one by one, each of the four BAS Twin Otter aircraft and the Dash-7 flew North to their summer residency in Calgary, Canada. It is something of a tradition for the planes to do a final fly-by of the base as they depart North for the last time, and it was a significant moment as the Dash-7 roared past the tower, waved off by a crowd of people huddled on the edge of the runway. The journey North is an extraordinary re-introduction to the real world for the BAS pilots – one day they depart the lonely wilderness of Antarctica, a few
days later are crossing the equator over the tropical rainforests of Ecuador, and before they know it, they are fighting their way through the jam-packed airspace above the USA and Canada.
That wasn’t the last of the aircraft though – one of the ski-equipped Basler aircraft that services the German base of Neumayer, hundreds of miles away on the Brunt ice-shelf, had a technical fault and required spare parts to be brought in via Rothera. As the pilots finally transited through in their repaired aircraft, they looked exhausted and relieved – the area of Antarctica from which they were departing is no longer accessible by ship due to the sea ice, and they were the very last aircraft remaining on this side of the continent – all others have been pushed back North by the bitter winter conditions. If the spare parts had not made it in then there was a very real possibility that the crew would have had to spend the winter either at Neumayer, or with the nearby BAS team at Halley. Antarctica does not offer second chances at this late stage in the season.
However, that is now it for aircraft operations – the runway is closed until the planes make their first forays back into Antarctica in the October springtime, and the hangar lies quiet and empty. For me, on the operations side, this makes a huge step-change in the amount of work there is to do – finally, it is possible to start relaxing and enjoying some free time, before the next big job starts, servicing all of the radio equipment to get it ready for the start of next summer.