"Off to the World of Light"

Jim Sweitzer - January 6, 1995

    As I begin writing today's entry I have just crossed another fictional line on the globe, the Antarctic Circle (66.5 degrees south latitude). I will not experience nighttime until I return to New Zealand. That is because we are so far south that, this time of the year, the Sun never sets. At the Earth's equator the Sun travels in a perpendicular path with respect to the horizon. As you move farther and farther south the Sun sets in a more graceful path that becomes more and more parallel to the horizon. Eventually, when you are within 23.5 degrees* of the pole, the Sun misses the horizon entirely, dips close to the sea at midnight, and then takes back off to higher elevations.

We are plowing our way straight down the International Date Line aimed directly at Mount Erebus on the edge of Antarctica. The 1,600 mile trip is the second to last leg of my journey to the South Pole and requires 8 hours of flying time in the lumbering transport plane we are on. Out the ten inch diameter porthole behind me all I can see is endless blue ocean with a serene flock of clouds in the distance. This tranquil scene ends when I turn my gaze back into the interior of the plane.

The LC 130 Hercules aircraft I am riding in lifted its ski- hooded wheels from the Christchurch runway at exactly 10 AM, right when they said it would. It was a relief to the forty two passengers on board after yesterday's frustrating false start. We are dressed in our cold weather boots and slung in red nylon-webbed seating with our down coats used as cushions. This seating extends continuously half the length of the inside of the craft forming four rows parallel to the axis of the airplane. Although I am face to face with a row of people and jammed in between two others, there is no way to converse unless we know sign language. That's because we have earplugs in to protect our hearing from the roar of the four turboprop engines. The overwhelming sensation is that of the vibrations of the engines. This is a flying experience you can feel. At least it is during the day so that we don't have to try and sleep.

The daytime departure is also good because it means that there is enough light in the cabin for people to read. Our vessel is designed to ferry people and supplies, so there are only a few interior lights eight feet above me tangled among the electrical cables and hydraulic lines. I see more than half of my fellow Antarctic passengers reading airport novels to pass the eight hours of flying time. Earlier we all picked through the sack lunch given to us to see if there was something we felt like eating. I eat a little, but am wary to drink too much because I don't feel like stumbling over twenty people and bundles of hand-carry emergency bags to get to the makeshift toilet behind a curtain at the tail of the plane.

Earlier I was invited onto the flight deck where the pilot and crew fly the plane. The first impression is of a vast expanse of windows. The visibility is wide and deep. Out ahead of us in all directions is the ocean and a few puffy clouds. The Sun glides low to the right. This space is almost 16 feet wide and on two levels. Three crew members ride in bucket seats facing forward. Next to the back wall of the deck is where the navigator works. A bench in back seats three visiting dignitaries from Washington. These are the first class seats.

I had forgotten that traveling to Antarctica this time of year is like entering a world of light. The snow only makes the effect even more brilliant. To an astronomer this is not such a strange concept. We are trained as children to think of outer space as dark, but the dark is only because we can only see starry space looking out through Earth's nighttime shadow. Off the Earth, deep in the solar system the Sun's light is almost everywhere. You have to crouch close behind a planet to experience darkness.

We will be landing soon, so I must put on my sunglasses. ----- *Technically, this is only on the December solstice. The sun's north-south position changes little this time of the year, making it nearly the same today as it was back then.

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