Helo Blades


And now, suddenly, we're leaving. Let's drop the "royal we". I'm leaving. Helo time has been scheduled. I'm leaving. Tony's got me on a flight to Lake Bonney. It's unscheduled. Unplanned. Last minute. A whim. One of the helo ops folks made the mistake of saying within earshot of my boss, "If only we could see in the valleys, we'd know whether or not it was worthwhile to launch". Tony stepped up and offered them our "spare" radio webcam, and me to install it. They asked him to name that tune.


 After five days of sitting on my hands waiting for the weather to clear, the schedule is backed up beyond reason. Nothing has flown the past five days. All the science has been on hold while scientists on fixed budgets paced the floors of Crary lab wondering how to make use of the downtime. Now helo time is being meted out by priority: ice time. Prestige. Pull with the government. These are what's being considered by the dispatchers as they try to flush five days of science down a restricted-orifice toilet.


 Somehow, I wind up on the first wave.


 There's a little confusion at the beginning. They're going to fly me out at midnight, which wouldn't appear any different than 10AM except for the fact I'd be stupider than a bull moose at an SAT session without sleep. Somehow between the hours of midnight AM and six AM I'm supposed to recce an area on the top of a hill called the Bonney Riegel, mark it with whatever I can find that can be spotted from the air, call in flight support to bring our 800lb camera to that point & drop it, then get it configured and install the base station at the Bonney camp jamesway, and get that communicating back to McMurdo--wouldn't that be nice to have those 20 miles of hiking and electronic hookup finished while everyone is sleeping so it will be up and running first thing in the AM?


 My lack of enthusiasm for the plan is matched only by my ability to spew enough sarcasm to get myself fired and the entire USAP shut down forever.


 With the wisdom of Solomon now crammed forcefully up his nostrils, my boss relents. I'm leaving at 10AM the next morning and I'll have two people to assist me: Scott, one of our WPI students, and at Bonney camp, Brad the Eagle Scout who is doing a two-week tour out there with my friends on the limnology team.


 Scott and I report to helo ops at ten. Frances will be our pilot, Todd our helo tech. As Frances lifts off and finishes filing his flight plan with MacOps, he settles in for the 30 minute cruise over the flat white and asks me what's up with the camera over the intercom. I fill him in on the details of the mission, and he manages a few wry comments about prior planning and me needing to be absolutely sure I know what I'm doing, because he's not taking the blame if the thing goes south on us and the whole goddamned 800 pounds of camera and gel cell batteries currently dangling under the helo by a cable goes crashing into extremely sensitive International Antarctic Treaty restricted area, pun intended about going south did I get it?


 There's something about a man in control of an aircraft asking you if you have responsibility that gets the kidneys to flood the bladder and the adrenal gland spurting into the blood stream. I needed to pee and strangle someone simultaneously.


 "I get it," I said in to the helo intercom. Then I said, "I got it covered," when I really had no idea what was needed to be covered. All I knew was I had the least to lose of anyone on the mission. The worst that would happen to me is I'd be banned from the ice for the rest of my life. I could go back to my career in silicon valley and destroying an irreplaceable, ecologically sensitive area would be laughed off as great dinner conversation by any prospective employer. Frances and Todd had jobs on the line. Scott had his future as a polar engineer.


 Scott looked at me, worried, knowing full well that I knew the whole thing was a huge boondoggle, poorly thought out by the powers-that-be who would heap the blame on top of both of us if the slightest thing went wrong. Like a good leader, I told him not to worry and just to do everything single thing I said, exactly the way I said it, when I said it, and we'd be all right.


 Every crisis needs a megalomaniac, and on this mission it was going to be me.


 We put down on the helo pad at Lake Bonney and I ran through my "helicopter safety briefing" in my mind. The helo pad at Bonney is a flat area on a slight grade. Last year I'd made the mistake of exiting the helo and taking a few steps uphill. When a helicopter is near a slope, walking uphill near the helicopter puts one's brains closer to the whirring blades. One good way to give a camp manager a heart attack is to become decapitated by the only reliable form of transportation in the dry valleys, other than your feet. She reminded me before I took my second step by grabbing my arm in a kung-fu pincer grip and yanking me around.


 This year, there would be no camp manager to save me. I would have to save everyone else.


 Scott and I helped Todd unload the helo. Upon making the same mistake I had made the prior year, I grabbed Scott in my kung-fu grip and wheeled him around to the delight of both Todd and Francis, who now suspected having put their trust in me may not have destroyed their careers. I had done one thing right as a leader.


 Not being able to ignore the sound of a landing helo, Jill and Brad the eagle scout met us and helped us stash our gear and the camp supplies we'd ferried out.


 It was good to be in Bonney again. And it was completely strange and wonderful to land in such an exotic location and find a camp full of friends. Jill and Christine were acting as camp managers and they had two students and the boy scout with them. I'd met the two of them them two years before on my first deployment, and had spent time with them then, and also had Thanksgiving with them and their team last year.


 I'd flown 24 hours on commercial airlines, countless hours boomeranging and eventually getting to the ice on military transport. And now after a 45 minute helo flight, I was coming home to friends.


 Once in the jamesway that served as the main camp building, we got our gear settled and as had been done with me two years earlier, I went over camp details with Scott. Where the water was. Where the food was. Where we would have to bunk that night and where he could go to the toilet, what the standard chore rotations were for camp life.


 We had lunch with the limno team, and they headed out for their afternoon run up to the west lobe of Lake Bonney, next to the Taylor Glacier. We worked on our gear config in the jamesway. Brad got the antenna up on the comms mast while Scott affixed the cabling to some of the jamesway spars and established the link back to McMurdo.


 For my part, I sipped some hot chocolate and ate a Cadbury bar. As we all learned in survival school, for the good of the mission, someone's got to be the one who takes the blame, and that person shouldn't be wielding a shovel.


 Outside, Scott noticed a halo around the sun and some faint sun dogs in the sky. The brilliant light made the ice glow on the Hughes and Rhone glaciers. Scott couldn't stop saying everything was "cool" and I reveled in watching someone else mowed over by the spectacle of himself becoming dissolved in unfiltered nature.


 We were finally in the field in Antarctica. Far away from everything important. Right smack dab in the middle of real life.