Supplies come from the sky

Posted Dec. 18, 2008, at 10:11 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:37 a.m.

Getting supplies to the South Pole requires, at times, more than a little creativity. When the only aircraft that can land here holds no more than six pallets of cargo — and aircraft can land only during the four warmest months of the year — getting provisions can be challenging.

Which is why yesterday we received an airdrop of cargo: 20 parachute-clad boxes were dropped from the sky by a C-17.

“Just don’t forget to look up,” the employee in charge of safety told us before the drop. “We’re dropping them off-station, but you cargo folks will be right there, and we don’t want any employee craters.”

Our gifts from the sky were, understandably, not fragile equipment. Mostly we were to receive dry goods — cookies, sacks of sugar and other food. “If anything goes poorly, there’s nothing wrong with crushed Oreos.”

The day of the airdrop had a festive air. The drop zone sat a couple miles away from the station, marked by flags and — yes — a big target for the C-17 pilots. We set off in snowmobiles and tracked vehicles, with still more of us riding on a sled towed behind the snowmobile. As we tore away from the station and into the expanse of white beyond it, we searched the sky for the contrails that would be our first sign of the C-17.

Leaving the boundaries of South Pole Station, staring into the white of the plateau, always gets my adrenaline up. The cargo team tossed a flying disc around as we waited, laughing and joking, practicing handstands in the snow, kicking our heavy boots over our heads. This was no ordinary cargo run, and we were all excited.

“Here it comes!”

Our eyes were glued to the sky as the C-17 made a pass over us and then opened the ramp at the tail of the plane, sliding out 10 boxes. They fell one after another, their parachutes popping open.

“Watch that they don’t tangle.”

When the boxes get too close in the air, their chutes suck the wind from each other, causing the chutes to open and close, or “jellyfish.” One box’s parachute had its air taken when a neighboring box got too close. It dropped like a stone.

“Ooh!”

“That one will be fun to unbury.”

The second pass was even closer to us. When the back of the plane opened and another 10 boxes were pushed out, I could have sworn I could see their straps from where I stood on the ground. When they landed, we walked to the boxes, not even bothering to grab the snowmobiles in our eagerness.

Most of the boxes landed well. Their cardboard pads, designed to cushion the blow, were all partially buried, but every box was intact. Except for the one box, that is, and we couldn’t tell how well it had fared; it had buried itself completely in the snow. We had to dig just to retrieve its parachute.

We carefully folded up each parachute, examining the cargo as we went. Messages had been written on one or two boxes, wishing us happy holidays; a flight crew jacket had been tied to the outside of one box.

If the people at South Pole Station were ever in trouble in the middle of the winter, an airdrop would be the only way to get them supplies.

We head back to the station with the parachutes. We’ll return tomorrow to load the cargo up, but for now we are content that the drop went well. The doctor who had come out to the drop zone with us in case anything had gone wrong waves goodbye cheerfully. “Three cheers for a successful provisioning!” I shout.

The aircraft that can actually land at South Pole are primarily LC-130 Hercules, ski-equipped for the snow, four-engine, turboprop planes designed for tactical assault missions. They are the primary aircraft used by Air Mobility Command for tactical missions.

While we don’t exactly need the “assault” aspect of the C-130 at the South Pole, we occasionally do “combat-drops” of cargo — only instead of needing minimal ground time due to armed conflict, we need minimal ground time because the plane will freeze. Sometimes when temperatures drop unexpectedly at the end of the season, these LC-130s will “drift” cargo, opening the back of the plane as they land and pushing the cargo boxes out onto the snow.

They say that interesting situations create some interesting solutions. Getting the cargo we need to South Pole Station is no exception.

Now time to go dig up that box.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at madams@bangordailynews.net.

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