The cavernous interior of the Ilyushin-76 jet was crammed with cargo, including a hulking 6-wheel drive truck that loomed over the passenger space at the front. There were 2 rows of fairly typical aircraft passenger seats at the front that were reserved for the guests (all seven of whom are heading to the emperor penguin colony) and a few of us staff who are most closely involved with supporting this first group of guests. This may be the closest I ever get to flying business class – relatively speaking. The remaining staff were on fold-down seats along the sides of the fuselage, facing the cargo.
Ilyushins were designed for landing on Russian tundra, and have more wheels than most similar-sized aircraft, to spread the weight. This is also why they are suitable for landing on Antarctic glaciers, which have a more irregular surface than a sealed runway. A marvelous feature of the otherwise utilitarian service was a large screen at the front of the cabin, linked to a camera in the navigator’s bubble below the cockpit (the view looked like the camera was only a metre above the tarmac). This gave a real sense of anticipation as we taxied to the end of the runway then started to rumble south for the interminably long take-off required to get 109 tons of plane, 17 tons of cargo and 84 tons of fuel into the air. There was a soberingly-short section of runway left before we cleared the treetops and began the slow ascent to 8800 metres.
While in the air, a split screen was used to show both the camera view and a GPS map to show our progress south for the next 4.25 hours – across the Magellan Strait, Tierra del Fuego, Cape Horn, and Drake Passage, and down the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula. The peninsula was under cloud initially, which then cleared to reveal fractured sea-ice and occasional open water. The continent itself appeared featureless until midway through our descent, when mountains emerged from the white expanse. The cabin heaters were turned down as we descended, signaling time to don full Antarctic garb for the conditions on landing – minus 17 degrees Celsius and a 40 kilometres per hour wind. The Ellsworth Mountains loomed larger as we approached Union Glacier, banking right after the last side range of mountains to align with the runway. We flashed past a small collection of vehicles before a gentle touch down on solid ice, and careered for what seemed like many kilometres before the captain brought the aircraft to a halt, to a round of whoops and applause. Then the long trundle north to the waiting vehicles. The cold air hit like a freezer as we climbed down the ladder into pristine whiteness surrounded by rocky mountains under a blue dome. We had time for a few photos of the Ilyushin before clambering into three large vehicles for the 8 kilometre drive to camp.
Union Glacier camp is situated far enough down the glacier, and behind Mt Rossman, that it is a bit more sheltered from the prevailing katabatic winds. It was still windy when we arrived, blowing fine snow as we erected about 20 tents for the new staff. We each had our own tent, in a grid of 60 (the maximum number of staff plus aircrew that would be at Union Glacier at any one time). Guests had larger tents that they could stand up in, but were generally required to share a tent with one other guest.
We had wondered whether we would fly straight to the emperor penguin colony at Gould Bay, to make up for a day lost in Punta Arenas. However, the meteorologists advised otherwise, despite conditions at both Union Glacier and Gould Bay being suitable for visual flying. The colony is at the north end of Berkner Island, which is surrounded by shelf ice (i.e. glacier ice), and so is really an island only by name. The 787 km distance from Union Glacier is too far for a Twin Otter to fly there-and-back without refueling, and so a fuel cache has been established at the south end of Berkner Island. South Berkner was under cloud, and the forecast suggested that we were likely to be at Union Glacier for a few days.
Te Papa vertebrate curator Dr Colin Miskelly visited Antarctica during November-December 2014 as a guest lecturer for Adventure Network International (ANI). Colin reached Antarctica via Punta Arenas in southern Chile. This is the first in a series of blogs based on his experiences in Antarctica, and particularly at the Gould Bay emperor penguin colony in the southern Weddell Sea.
Subsequent blogs in this series: