Field Update: Jan. 11, 2011

After a good deal of planning and many emails back and forth, we are participating in a test of the Air National Guard’s (ANG) new Crevasse Detection Radar (CDR) in support of NSF’s science mission in Antarctica.

We checked the weather and then took a shuttle out to the Pegasus white-ice runway on the McMurdo Ice Shelf. It’s about 18 miles from McMurdo Station to Pegasus. The route goes through the pass to Scott Base and then out over the transition toward the Long Duration Balloon (LDB) launch facility and along a flagged route to the airfield. This is where the C-17 planes arrive and depart the continent, and also where the LC-130 aircraft, which are equipped with both wheels and skis, head out into the deep field.

There are a couple of rows of containers that line the runway and provide shelter and facilities for air traffic control and other essential services like refueling and runway maintenance. There are also a lot of power and communications lines connecting all of these structures, which are often mounted on sledges to make them able to be relocated. Planes come and go at all hours of the day and night, so a lot of people are required. There’s a small Galley and Mess and all the other amenities that are necessary for people to stay out here for hours and sometimes days at a time.

Bruce Luyendyk and I have been invited to participate in a flight out towards Coulman High, where we’ll look at a crack in the ice shelf using the CDR.

The plane we’re flying in is called the “City of Albany” and our call sign for today’s flight is “Skier 91”, flown by the New York squadron of the ANG.

The CDR is mounted in a pod attached to a boom that can fold down behind the skis, just under a special domed window in the door of the aircraft.

The crew tells me you can lean out in the dome and feel like you’re outside the airplane – this must be an incredible view – I can’t wait to try it out!

We step up into the plane and see the cargo stacked neatly in a row down the middle with jump seats along both sides of the aircraft. We’ll sit right here.

But no, we get invited up into the cockpit to view the takeoff from the snow!

The LC-130 is flown by Capt. Joshua Hicks and the rest of his flight team.

We take off and simulate a cargo drop over the airfield and then head west over southern McMurdo Sound toward the sea ice edge and the ocean. We turn back east and then north, heading along Ross Island to Coulman High.

It’s a cloudy day, but the radar sees through the clouds, so we get on with our mission of testing the CDR. I look up out of the dome and see the prop.

One of the skis is right below me, and clouds are everywhere I look around.

The radar testing team, Marty, Tim and Jacob, are all from Sandia National Laboratory. They have computers and cables plugged into the pod sensors.

We’re now near the edge of the ice shelf to the east of Ross Island, about 35 miles from the ANDRILL camp, looking at a crack in the ice shelf below. It’s great view and we swing back and forth along the ice edge letting the radar map the features on and below the surface of the ice. You can see the edge of the ice along the crack, plunging about 120 feet (40 meters) from the surface of the ice to the ocean, and you can see how the ice broke raggedly along the face of the opening. We wonder how long it took for this gap to open up, and how fast the crack is propagating? But as we fly along, we see other cracks closer to Cape Crozier at the northern end of the Shear Zone. We’ll have to keep an eye on this area in the future, so we aren’t surprised by a potential calving event along the ice shelf in this area. It’s happened before and it can happen again – but hopefully not while we’re in the area!

We’ve collected all the data we need and the test is complete, so we head back and land on the ice shelf, touching down gently on the skis and sliding along to the end of the runway. It’s been a great flight, and we thank Josh and all of the ANG flight crew members who hosted us on this trip, as well as Walter, Marty, Tim and Jacob for sharing the testing program with us.

We exit the LC-130, see other ski-equipped, fixed-wing aircraft poised to take research groups into the field, and then we look for a shuttle van to take us back to McMurdo Station. Its been a great day – thanks to the ANG!!

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