Co-pilot to Fossil Bluff

December 27th, 2006

One of the nicer perks of working down South is going co-piloting. Because the Twin Otter only requires one pilot but BAS regulations say that no-one goes off base alone, sometimes you get asked to go out on a flight. This is a great deal of fun – you get to sit in the front of the plane, enjoy the scenery and help out the pilot with various jobs (usually loading and unloading).
Anyway, a week or two back I got a co-pilot on a routine fuel run to Fossil Bluff and back. This takes about four hours, and begins with making tea and sandwiches to take with you in the canteen whilst the pilots are being briefed on the weather situation. Having got a decision to go from Nico, my pilot for the day, I put my outdoor gear on and headed down to the apron where the plane was being fuelled and loaded.

Clem and Doug fuelling the plane

The plane’s fuel tanks are filled with fuel from the bulk storage at Rothera, but our job today was to take five drums of fuel (just over 1000 litres) down to Fossil Bluff for other aircraft to use when they’re working further south. Loading a plane is quite tricky – you have to be careful to ensure that your load doesn’t disturb the plane’s balance – and the pilot is responsible for arranging the load and lashing everything down with ratchet straps.

Loading drums

Having got the plane fuelled and loaded I was briefed on what to do in an emergency (basically, switch the engines off and get out via any available exit that doesn’t lead to a whirling propeller!)
and then it was time to go. Chocks away and off we go down the runway. The Twin Otters have an extremely low take-off speed (slightly more than 60mph!) which means that even fully laden you can get off the ground using only half our 900m runway.
It was a cloudy day, so we bimbled our way down to the Bluff below the clouds, travelling at less than 1000 feet for most of the journey. With a heavy aircraft it’s important to stay out of low cloud as it can cover the aircraft in a thick layer of ice which makes it much heavier and harder to control. Normally we would have climbed up above the cloud but todays cloud extended from about 1000 to around 12000 feet, so we couldn’t easily climb above it.

Twin Otter console

Nico the pilot

When we landed at Fossil Bluff Nico rolled the fuel drums out of the plane and I helped Mark and Richard to stand them up and arrange them neatly into a depot for use by other aircraft later in the season or next year. Then we loaded the plane up with empty drums and other rubbish to fly back to Rothera.

Rolling the drums out of the plane

Richard and Mark building the depot

After an hour on the ground we headed back. With a much lighter aircraft Nico tried to climb up above the cloud – we went up to 12000 feet (where the air is very thin and you can get a bit dozy) but the cloud was still there for the first part of the journey when suddenly we burst out of it and flew along in sunshine above the cloud tops. Finally we spotted a hole in the cloud and dropped down steeply towards Rothera, and made our approach from the South, passing very close to the James Clark Ross which was moored near the end of the runway.

Home again – Rothera runway and the JCR


December 27th, 2006

As some of you might have gathered from the fact that I haven’t done any blog updates for six weeks, I have been more than a little busy! In fact I’d go as far as to say that I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard as I have these last six weeks – starting early, finishing late and fielding constant questions and issues from people during every meal break!

Rather than try and give a full history of what has actually happened, here are the main developments in a few specific areas:

Firstly, the planes. There’s been a lot of problems with the aircraft even after they arrived. We had regulatory issues with the Twin Otters and a huge saga with the propellors on the Dash. In the latter case the Dash and its crew were stranded in Stanley for about a fortnight after turning back in mid-flight with oil pouring from two of the propellors. Eventually parts were obtained and the props were repaired, but it took a long time. Various people who had been given seats on Dash flighs were instead put on the James Clark Ross for a slow cruise down the Peninsula!
Finally in mid-December the BAS board lost patience with the new aircraft maintenance company and revoked their contract, awarding a new contract to the Canadian firm who had maintained the aircraft for the last five years.

Ships: Just before Christmas the James Clark Ross made an appearance, festooned with huge amounts of deck cargo and tied up against the wharf to get rid of it all before heading off round Ryder Bay on a science cruise. When they returned they unloaded everything else and so the base is now a sea of boxes, containers and vast amounts of packaging. There’s always a delicate balance to strike between overpackaging and having stuff damaged in transit, so we end up shipping a lot of packaging material back to the UK for reuse each year.

People: We’re now up to 95 on base, with a large contingent from Morrison Construction who are building the first phase of the new base. More importantly for me we’re now up to full strength in the Comms team. Tristan (my replacement) and Crispin (one of the summer radio operators – he’s an FGA who fancied a change of scene) arrived on the second Dash flight and it’s been a bit of a baptism of fire as we went quickly into a very complex operation to put a team of four onto Pine Island Glacier which is out on the far western edge of our normal operating area. Because of the trouble with the Dash, our two Royal Navy staff arrived on the JCR. Simon and Jamie are trainee helicopter pilots and will be dividing their time between doing comms work and helping out the Air Unit with refuelling, loading and maintaining the aircraft.

Christmas: Everyone always asks about Christmas down here. It’s a lot more low-key than in the UK because it’s right at our busiest time of year. There’s no pre-Christmas build-up and the general consensus is that we don’t think about it until the JCR leaves (usually around the 22nd). But we do now have decorations up, we had our Christmas dinner (turkey, of course, but no bones – bone-in meat is forbidden under the treaty) and people received gifts from home. But today (Boxing Day) all the BAS staff are back at work. I worked on Christmas afternoon – as the pilots wanted to continue flying as we had good weather – but it wasn’t too much hardship!