An inspector calls

November 21st, 2006

It’s now Monday night and we’ve had quite a busy 48 hours! Yesterday three of the Twin Otters flew in and managed to arrive just as the Laurence M Gould was tying up. The sea ice unfortunately prevented the LMG from getting right up close to the wharf – they used a crane and basket to lift people across the gap – and Steve and Tim went on board to introduce themselves and give the usual safety briefing. Because the ship got in later than they’d intended (it was nearly 7pm by the time they were done) the inspectors elected not to start work until the following day. Unfortunately the chief inspector didn’t grant any shore leave that evening, so all the ship’s crew were a bit cheesed off that they were within spitting distance of Rothera Bar but not allowed off the ship for a drink. We were a bit disappointed too – visitors are always a welcome diversion!

Anyway, this morning the air mechanics got on with the task of putting the Dash-7 back together, with the intention of flying up to Punta Arenas in the afternoon. Unfortunately it took longer than they expected so the flight was cancelled – it’ll go tomorrow instead. This gave me a quiet if rather uncertain morning, and so I showed several of the crew of the LMG round part of the base and was then invited back to the ship for a tour, which was very interesting! The Gould is relatively young compared to our two ships (she was built in 1997, whereas the JCR was launched in 1990) but she’s quite different – the bridge and living accomodation feels a lot smaller than on either the JCR or the Ernest Shackleton, but there’s a lot more scientific lab space and facilities. Conversely, as the Gould visits Palmer Station for a resupply every few months, there’s only a very small cargo hold under the aft deck (space for four containers) whereas our ships carry a lot more.

The inspectors saw all that they wanted and were apparently pretty satisfied with our methods, so that’s a weight off a lot of people’s minds!

As for the other ship, the Khlebnikov, she called in on Sunday to say that they had an infectious disease breaking out on board (not dangerous, just unpleasant for all concerned) and so they wouldn’t come and visit after all.

Tomorrow the Dash is going to try and get up to Punta Arenas to pick up a whole load of people – including half-a-dozen builders, the new doctor, and Tristan, who’s my replacement. The Twin Otters will be out doing “circuits and bumps” – landing and taking off again – so that the pilots get a feel for landing on skis again. It shouldn’t be long before we’re getting Fossil Bluff opened up and the season will begin in earnest.

Propeller problems

November 18th, 2006

Well, the Dash-7 did fly in on Tuesday and we did get our mail, which was well worth the wait. Unfortunately, when they came to fly back to Stanley the following day the pilots found that there was a mechanical problem with the Dash’s propellers, all four of them. With only enough parts to mend one of them, the plane’s been grounded. The four Twin Otters have been in Stanley having their skis fitted, and one of them’s gone to Punta Arenas this afternoon to pick up the spare parts. We’re expecting two Otters tomorrow from Stanley and another from Punta on Sunday or Monday. Hopefully the Dash will be in flying condition by Tuesday. To complicate things further, one of the pilots has a lung infection and is unable to fly, so the fourth Otter will have to stay in Stanley until another pilot can go and collect it.

Just as all this drama was unravelling, the Inmarsat phone rang in my office. It was the Lawrence M Gould, the US research ship. They’ve got Antarctic Treaty inspectors on board and they want to make a visit to Rothera. On Sunday. So there’s been lots of running around to sort out all the relevant paperwork and look in the last inspection report to see what we were supposed to have done. The Treaty inspections are mostly concerned with environmental matters – waste disposal and management of environmental incidents (like oil spills) – so it shouldn’t be too onerous. It may, of course, not actually happen, as the Gould may not be able to get here through the sea ice – like most modern research ships it’s “ice strengthened” rather than being an icebreaker.

Our final diversion is another ship – the Kapitan Khlebnikov, which will be bringing us 100-odd tourists to look round the station on Monday or Tuesday. There’s no doubt of the Khlebnikov’s ability to get in here as it’s the world’s largest non-nuclear icebreaker, built for use in the Russian Arctic. When it gets here we may only have 30-odd people on base, so it’ll be all available hands to show the tourists all the scientific work we do and how the base lives, before they all hit the Post Office and clear us out of stamps and teeshirts!

Planes today?

November 14th, 2006

Well, three out of the five BAS aircraft are in Stanley today (two of the Twin Otters are still flying down through Brazil at the moment) and there’s talk of the Dash-7 coming to Rothera this afternoon. The weather’s a bit marginal so we’re making hourly phonecalls to the Falklands to update the pilots as it develops. They’ll decide at some point this morning whether to come or not. The two Twin Otters are having their skis fitted and may or may not be with us tomorrow.
Apparently there’s 120kg or so of post that’s built up in the Stanley office, so there are a lot of people hoping that the mailbags will be here today!

Field work begins

November 7th, 2006

I should also add that on Friday our first field party of the season were flown onto King George Island by HMS Endurance’s helicopters. They’re undertaking a series of geological studies to try and determine past variations in the island’s climate. KGI has the highest density of bases of any region on the continent, playing host to around 10 bases operated by different countries. At present part of our team are staying at the Chinese base, Great Wall, whilst a roving party have spent the last night with the Argentinians at Jubany before being helicoptered to another location tomorrow.
I’m talking to the scientists every evening by Iridium phone, as the radio (which was hastily found in Cambridge when it became clear that we were not going to be able to supply kit from Rothera in time) has failed to work.

Busy week

November 7th, 2006

I like to take life one day at a time, but recently several days have attacked me at once…

It began last Sunday (29th Oct) when we had four Twin Otters fly in from Punta Arenas. All four work for Kenn Borek Air, who are a Canadian firm who operate aircraft on behalf of several national Antarctic programmess. In this case we had one plane working for the US, one working for the Italians and two working for Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions, who run an adventure tourism business from a summer-only base camp at Patriot Hills, on the edge of the Ellsworth Mountains. In addition to 12 Kenn Borek aircrew we also met Di and Chris who were ALE’s “advance party” that would open up Patriot Hills ready for the rest of the team to arrive on the mighty Ilyushin-76 aircraft they charter from the Russians.

Anyway, the following days produced a lot of aircraft-related running around. Kenn Borek operate all their Twin Otters on fixed skis during the season, which means that they have to change from wheels to skis here at Rothera. The fixed skis weigh less than the wheel skis that we use on our aircraft, allowing them to carry a higher payload. Anyway, the two ALE planes had flown in with wheel skis on, landed at the skiway (which is a big flat area of glacier about three miles from base, marked with a 2.5km long line of oil drums) and started to change over to fixed skis. The other two landed on wheels on the runway at Rothera.
Monday saw a good deal of ski-related faffery, as the two sets of wheel skis taken off the ALE planes then had to be dragged down to the hangar behind the Sno-Cat and then fitted to the other two planes. These then flew up to the skiway, landed on the wheel skis and then took them off again in order to fit fixed skis. Unsurprisingly, this took all day!
On Tuesday we had a tricky development – Jim, the pilot working for the Americans, got a phone call asking him to go back to Punta Arenas and collect some spare parts for Kenn Borek’s Basler BT-67 (which we’d seen the week before). This was just at the point at which he’d got his aircraft converted to fixed skis! Fortunately for him, a heavy dump of snow had fallen on Monday night, allowing him to land on skis on the snow-covered runway before going back to wheels again. So Jim flew back to Punta whilst the team working for the Italians flew down to McMurdo – they didn’t leave Rothera until 21:30 and I finally handed them off to McMurdo at 01:30, which made for a late night.
Wednesday was another long day. Jim flew in from Punta Arenas and arrived at lunchtime, changed over to skis (the runway still had just enough snow on it) and then flew out to McMurdo.
Two down, two to go. The ALE planes left on Thursday afternoon and failed to get into Patriot Hills due to low cloud – they diverted to a place called Hercules Inlet and went in to land. After the first plane landed, the pilot of the second plane was unable to contact him by any means, and eventually landed at another location and rang Kenn Borek in Calgary to find out if the other plane’s tracking device was still working. It was, so the plane was still either flying or taxiing. About a day of occasional muddled phonecalls ensued until we rang ALE’s office in Punta Arenas and found that they’d heard from the other plane and all was well.

On Friday Tim declared a day off (as everyone had worked on Sunday getting ready for the planes) and, unusually, we got some decent weather and went skiing. The snow conditions on the Ramp (the steep glacier close to base) were good, and when we later headed up to the main ski area, Vals, it was covered in soft powdery snow, which was great.
On Saturday, feeling a little stiff from the day before, Tim encouraged Ags, Jade and I out for a day’s ski instruction. I can now do something more closely approximating a parallel turn although I think I’ve still got a long way to go…
On Sunday the weather was rather less pleasant and so most people stayed indoors. In my case this was enforced by the fact that in spending all day outside skiing I’d managed to chill my back (the day had started warm and got colder, and I hadn’t been wearing a fleece between my baselayer and my jacket) and it stiffened up. I spent a very pleasant afternoon sitting in the library in a supportive chair reading “The Shadow of the Wind” – a complex and gripping adventure/romance/detective story set in Barcelona in the ’50s.

Today, Monday, we’ve learned that the planes are coming! – the final clearances for the Twin Otters arrived in Cambridge on Friday and two of the Twotters have already left Oxford to make the long journey down. They’ve flown to Porto initially, and will then make their way down through the Canaries and Azores to Fernando de Noronha, a small island off the coast of Brazil. From there it’s on to Rio, Montevideo and finally Stanley. We expect to see them on Monday (13th). The other two Otters and the Dash-7 were fogbound in Oxford this morning but should leave tomorrow. But a lot could happen between now and when they finally get here!