Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Almost there

I'm sitting on the floor of a Hercules LC-130 cargo plane, back propped up by a pile of orange carry-on bags, staring at a cargo palette full of scientific equipment; being lulled by the gentle shaking of the aircraft and the roar of the engines; hurtling through the atmosphere above the Ross Ice Shelf. These planes are by now at once exotic and familiar, their hyper-functional innards a muted military Christmas palette of green and red. Sometimes I find the most utterly functional of things to be the most beautiful.

I suspect I've flown in as many Hercs as any other kind of aircraft during the last decade. Give me the leg room of a C-130 over coach in a 747 any day. Though the drink selection is limited: you are required to empty, and then refill your water bottle at the drinking fountain before being driven to the plane.

During takeoff I sat next to the McMurdo NSF Science Representative who is on her way to Pole for a day. I asked her how many times she'd been to Pole.

"Just once so far," she said.

I told her, "It's my seventh time, and I'm still excited."

Then she told me that she's been to the North Pole eight times, and while the plane lifted off we talked about the impact of global warming and the reduced ice coverage at the North Pole on air operations there (small Twin Otters can land but not the bigger planes, at one of the spots she worked at). I expect I won't get to the North Pole before it turns into open water (at least in Summer).

In contrast to our cloudy arrival in McMurdo, on the way to Williams Field this morning the views were crystal clear, with Erebus and Discovery gleaming frosty and intricate, seeming much closer than they really were. When the weather is right, it seems as though you can see forever in Antarctica. It's like that in space, they say. Well, this is my space journey, my Sci Fi experience. Planet Antarctica: empty voids filled with rocks and ice, strange creatures which waddle, swim and croak, and dusty humans with sunglasses and greasy hair.

Time to get up and look at the glaciers.

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