"Air Drop!"

Katy McNitt - June 22, 1995
Expert on Ozone and Climate Change


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                                              -Andru Jones

South Pole Resupply, 1995: A Huge Success!

Our airdrop was originally scheduled for Monday, 12 June, to correspond with the full moon. On Saturday the weather was awful here and people started to get worried, but by Sunday we had clear skies and (relatively) high temperatures. Little did we know that the folks in Christchurch were experiencing torrential rains. And since the tanker that refuels the C-141 in-flight would not be able to take off in the rain, airdrop was postponed until Friday the 16th.

Then, when the weather turned bad in McMurdo, their airdrop was rescheduled for the 15th; ours, for the 17th.

At 0100 on the 17th, our station manager radioed Christchurch for confirmation: airdrop was a GO! By 0500, the planes had left Christchurch and were headed south.

I had been working all night, measuring total ozone by aiming a Dobson Spectrophotometer at the moon, so I tried to sleep from 0600-0900. No use: I lay in bed, wide-eyed and eager, like a kid on Christmas morning.

Emily prepared a big breakfast for us, so we loaded up on eggs, sausage, toast, and juice, then we moved all of the tables and chairs out of the galley to make room for our "Christmas presents from above".

At 1000, a team went out to light the smudge pots that marked the drop zone, and everyone else bundled-up in extra layers of clothes, with hand warmers in our mittens and boots.

We couldn't have asked for better weather: the sky was clear and loaded with stars, and the light from the gibbous moon cast long shadows across the sastrugi. The temperature hung at about -95 F, with a wind-chill of about -140 F, which I guess is pretty chilly :) but no one seemed to notice. I don't think anyone got frostbitten, and some folks were outside for over four hours.

Around 1130, we could see faint red & green lights on the horizon, then we heard the once-familiar roar of an engine as the plane made its first pass, 1000 feet above our heads. We cheered and waved to the only strangers we'd seen since February, but I bet they were too busy to notice. We could see the strobe lights and then the dark shadows of bundles and parachutes as they thudded into the drop zone. Each bundle is 48"x48"x24" and weighs between 400 and 1000 lbs... they hit the ice at 65 mph with a loud WHUMP.

Since the hydraulic ramp in the rear of the plane won't work in such cold temperatures, the bundles have to be pushed out through the parachute doors on either side of the plane. The loadmasters wrestled 21 bundles through these doors, using the time between passes to breathe oxygen and get the next set of bundles ready.

After the fifth pass, the plane headed north, and we ran out to find the "Do Not Freeze" bundles. Half of the crew worked outside, locating bundles, rolling up parachutes, and filling the buckets of three Caterpillars. The other crewmembers met the CATs in the Dome, broke down the bundles, sorted the mail and cargo, and hauled the produce to the freshie shack.

Of 21 bundles, only one landed well outside the drop zone, and that one was easily spotted and retrieved with a tracked vehicle. No bundles were terribly smashed, none of the "Do Not Freeze" items froze, and only one parachute caught fire when it landed on a smudge pot. By 1700, we were reading letters and newspapers while munching apples, bananas, and passion fruit, and by 2000 most people had gone to bed, either because of plain exhaustion or because they had overdosed on chocolate. What a great day!

Thanks to everyone who made airdrop possible, especially the Air Force, The National Science Foundation, and all the people who bought, packed, and shipped thousands of pounds of supplies. Several science projects were saved by the arrival of spare parts, and the medical supplies bring peace of mind, but there's nothing like the smell of an orange or a letter Happy Solstice from the South Pole! For many of you, this is your longest day of summer, but for us it's "Midwinter's Day": the day the sun begins its slow spiral back to this side of the world. Twilight's still two months away, but somehow it feels warmer already! cheers: Katy McNitt
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

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