"The End of the Line"

Jim Sweitzer

    It's 9:30 AM and we're back on an LC130 for the final hop down to the Pole. It is another 2 hours and 45 minutes of flying, which translates to 839 miles or so approximately down the Date Line. We stayed only 12 hours in McMurdo.

We landed last night in McMurdo at 7:30 PM. Visibility was low, so we couldn't see more than about half a mile. Temperature was near freezing and a there was a moderate wind. The ride to the "center" of town on Ross Island from this runway on the ice shelf takes about 40 minutes in a lumbering big-wheeled vehicle called a Delta. When we arrive in town and are debriefed, we are told that we have about two hours to attend another meeting, grab a quick bite and then check in for a 5 AM flight in the morning. I am actually happy to get on with the trip. Some of the others groaned about all the sleep they were missing.

The flight, as is typical, is delayed for a couple of hours. By 8 AM we were at the air field. There was about twenty minutes to check out the sites. Williams Field (called by everyone Willie Field) bustles with activity. I count five aircraft on the ground. At least half of them are being loaded or unloaded. Some two dozen trailers on skis serve as the service buildings. I guess the skis are so they can be re-arranged when needed. Tractor vehicles and big-wheeled vehicles are everywhere. You have to be careful if you have your parka hood up that you don't get run over. Today it is quite warm (just a little below freezing) so you don't even need your parka.

Beyond the hubbub of Willie Field you can see in the distance mountains and volcanoes. The largest mountain is Mt. Discovery, I believe. The dominant peak is massive Mt. Erebus with a broken shroud of clouds on its southern flank. This volcano is famous and quite striking, mostly because of how big it is. The clear Antarctic air makes it seem quite close -- almost as if you could take a short hike over to it. But it is actually very far, some thirty miles I think I've been told. While I stand gazing at it, the driver of the Delta taps me on the shoulder and says we have to head back out to our plane.

Liftoff is smooth and the plane is much less crowded than yesterday. That's good because we all keep our parkas on for much of the flight. It's getting cold and will be much colder at the Pole. Ten minutes into the flight, many of us head for windows. The first third of the flight will be the only part with scenery. After that we will be over the featureless, high Antarctic plateau.

I grab a window near the back on the western side of the plane. The aircraft is still pitched up in what will be a long climb since the plateau at the Pole is at 9,515 feet elevation. At first I can see the mountains and Erebus to the rear. Then, broken low clouds begin to block the view. I'm a little disappointed but hope that they might break as we proceed.

The most curious thing happens when we lift just above the cloud deck. There below is the shadow of the plane, which could be predicted. But surrounding it is a beautiful double rainbow of light. There's a bright region right around the airplane shadow and then the colors proceed from violet through red. The whole specter is maybe 5 degrees in diameter. The inner one is the brightest and the outer barely perceptible. It's like the plane is traveling with a surrounding halo. I know I have seen pictures of this effect and I understand the physics but I can not for the life of me remember the name.

It's just as well because I am enjoying the view too much to put labels on things. The clouds do give way in places and I can now glimpse the terrain. A few mountains poke up through the glaciers. They actually look like gray-brown islands in a vast ocean of white. The glaciers actually seem to be like huge flowing tidal waves. I'm also impressed that I am looking out on many hundreds of square miles and there's no human footprints or any type of life for that matter.

At 11:30 AM we get the order to be back in our seats and buckled in. We're about ready to land at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Base. I am glad it is clear, because if the visibility is bad they make you turn back. Just as we touch down at the end of the runway I look out and see CARA's buildings in the dark sector. We have three major structures and there have been big changes since I was last here. It is a welcome site. It really looks like an observatory, not a scout camp as it has in the past.

When we depart the plane we are greeted by -24 degree F weather, but the winds are low and the sky is a brilliant blue. Perfect South Pole Weather. It feels good to breath the cleanest air on the planet. Unfortunately, it's also some of the driest. We all head in to have something to drink and lunch.

In the galley I meet up with many colleagues and old polar friends. It is great knowing so many people. I fill my plate and sit down to talk with Elizabeth Felton. She is now an old timer (having been here a week) and we catch up on what she has been working on.

Gotta go now and see our labs for the first time. Then I have to check into a building where many of are sleeping called Micky's Folly. I've never stayed there, but am suspicious of the name.

Now I remember the name of the atmospheric phenomena I saw

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