McMurdo Station, Antarctica
September 21, 2016
It has been a frustrating week since my last blog post. Often fieldwork has its ups and downs and the last week has definitely been more downs than ups.
As I mentioned in my last blog post, the week before last Tuesday (13 September) we had flown on five of seven days. The flights collected good data that will be useful for our scientific goals. Last Tuesday, as on the previous days, we planned to do several overnight flights Tuesday night into Wednesday morning. As we drove out to Pegasus we again measured very cold temperatures around -50 degrees F but with light winds. When we arrived at the runway we did our first SUMO flight of the night. Unfortunately, the winds were almost calm and while launching the plane I was more focused on the light winds and getting a good launch in those conditions than on my form while throwing the plane. As the plane left my hand the propeller hit my hand.
At first I didn’t realize that the propeller had hit my hand but focused on the fact that the plane had no power. I managed to make a controlled, but hard, landing. Only then did I realize that my hand had been cut and was bleeding a lot. I called to Mark, who was at the front of the van with the laptop that controls the SUMO after it is launched, and asked him to come back and help me. I covered my cut left hand with a glove liner while Mark and I picked up the SUMO and broken propeller blades from the runway. From the runway we went to one of the buildings at Pegasus to get a first aid kit to slow the bleeding from my hand. By that point the glove on my right hand, that I was using to cover the cut on my left hand, was soaked in blood and the two cuts were still bleeding profusely. Mark and I wrapped my cut finger in gauze, dropped off the SUMO and picked up our other bags from our work building at Pegasus, and started the 45 minute drive back to McMurdo. As Mark drove us back to McMurdo I called the firehouse in McMurdo, on our van radio, to let them know that we had a medical emergency and would need to see the station doctor when we got back to town. We got back to McMurdo and the medical building (jokingly referred to as McMurdo General Hospital) a bit more than an hour after I’d cut my hand.
When the doctor removed the gauze from my hand the two deep cuts on my index finger were still bleeding – one pulsing blood with every heartbeat. It was gruesome, but interesting, to look at. The doctor, with the help of two firemen, stitched the two cuts on my finger and I wound up with 9 stitches.
Luckily it appeared that there was no nerve or tendon damage so all I needed were stitches to help the two wounds heal. My finger was swollen and bruised initially but the swelling has gone down and I’ve gotten most of my mobility back in my finger. I’m scheduled to get the stitches removed in a few more days.
We didn’t attempt to fly the next day and then we had stormy weather move through the following two days. Mark and I were both excited to see a good storm but it never became very strong, although we did briefly have condition 2 weather in McMurdo due to reduced visibility in blowing snow.
The highlight of my week was Skyping with the kindergarten students at my daughter Sabrina’s elementary school (Coal Creek Elementary) in Louisville, Colorado on Friday morning (at 4AM my time, 10AM on Thursday for the kids in Colorado). The kids were super excited to talk with someone in Antarctica and I loved answering all of their questions. They wanted to know about what it is like to live and work in Antarctica, about the weather, and of course about penguins. I even took my computer outside to show them McMurdo and they quickly told me to go back inside because it was cold and I wasn’t wearing a jacket. I’m glad they were looking out for me. I’ll be Skyping with Sabrina’s 2nd grade class tomorrow and can’t wait to see what questions they have for me.
By Saturday (17 September) morning we were ready to attempt more SUMO flights. We had decided to have Mark launch the plane, since the grip in my left hand was still weak from the injury, while I would control the plane immediately after take-off with the remote control.
Unfortunately, the SUMO crashed during take-off on our first flight of the day. After Mark threw the plane it climbed steeply, stalled, and crashed. The SUMOs are pretty tough and it survived this crash. We tried again, with the same result but this time the wing was damaged beyond what we could repair. Our first attempt at flying after the accident was a failure. As best I can figure something must have been damaged in the SUMO after it struck my hand on Tuesday causing it to not fly correctly when we tried to launch it again.
We returned to Pegasus Saturday afternoon and were able to do two successful SUMO flights with Mark launching the SUMO and me controlling it with the remote control. By the time we were ready to do our third flight of the night the winds had died down and we ended our day’s flying. The winds remained calm on Sunday so we didn’t attempt any SUMO flights that day.
On Monday Mark and I headed out to the runway to do more SUMO flights. The winds at the runway were strong enough for easy SUMO launches. We again did two flights before the winds died down.
We returned to do more flights on Tuesday but the winds at the runway were light. We attempted one launch but the SUMO crashed on take-off. It suffered a little bit of damage but I was able to repair that back in the lab in McMurdo.
Over the past week the weather has warmed quite a bit. Prior to this past week the daily high temperatures were around -20 degrees F and the lows were around -30 degrees F in McMurdo and about 20 degrees F colder at the runway where we were working. This week the highs have been around 0 degrees F and the lows have been in the negative teens F. It has been so warm that for walking around town I’ve been able to wear just my light fleece jacket rather than the heavy, big red parka I’ve been wearing for most of the rest of the trip.
Today the weather has turned again and it is colder with daytime temperatures in the negative teens F and strong winds. These stormier conditions have resulted in condition 2 weather at the runway that has kept us in town and unable to fly. The windy, stormy weather is forecast to last a couple of days but we are keeping our eyes open for any chances to do more flights. We will be in Antarctica for another 1.5 weeks. Hopefully our luck will change and we will be able to fly on a lot of these remaining days.
Mark and I have done 18 Antarctic field seasons between the two of us and usually we have very successful seasons, accomplishing most of our goals. This field season has been far from a success so far. We’ve collected good data on 26 flights but I was hoping we’d do about 4 times that many flights by the end of the month. I doubt we will hit that target but hopefully we will be able to double our flight total before we have to leave.
I’ll end this blog post on a positive note with a panoramic photo I took from the runway on Tuesday morning. Hopefully my next blog post will be more ups than downs.