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.
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.
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.
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.
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.