November 26 – For the hundreds of researchers and support staff stationed at the bottom of the earth, annual re-supply flights are a critical necessity of life. Those flights, which bring much of the food, clothing, and scientific supplies that South Pole researchers use throughout the year, generally occur at the start of the Antarctic summer — late October to early November.
But before those flights can begin, an FAA Aviation Systems Standards team must go in and certify the equipment that helps pilots land their aircraft on the icy airfields that serve the National Science Foundation's McMurdo Station — America's primary Antarctic research center — and other South Pole outposts.
In the past, inspection crews and equipment have hitched a ride on military C-130 transport planes to flight check the equipment, collectively known as "navaids," that allow pilots to land in bad weather, low-visibility conditions. This year, however, the agency made history by flying a fully equipped FAA Challenger 601 to the South Pole, and conducting the entire flight inspection on its own.
The FAA's Antarctic journey began nearly two years ago, when the National Science Foundation formally requested that the agency use its own aircraft.
There were several compelling reasons for the FAA to do so, said mission pilot Bill Geiser. "The cost of a C-130 is way more than one of the FAA jets," he explained. "Secondly, whenever we used a C-130, it takes an airplane away from doing its primary mission of supplying the South Pole." So, in the fall of 2006, project lead Kirk Babcock began studying the feasibility of sending an FAA Flight Inspection jet into the icy wilds of Antarctica.
McMurdo station photographed from the air during an FAA flight check mission.
Babcock said he and his team began by analyzing potential safety risks associated with the mission. "I can't even remember exactly how many risk analyses we did, but we looked at every possible scenario our plane could get into — including the absolute worst case scenario, in which we would get past our point of safe return, bad weather would come in, and we'd have to land with no visibility."
Babcock admits he was among those who were initially skeptical the agency could pull off such a feat. No one, he said, was more surprised than he when his research increasingly began to bear out the mission's feasibility. "It was so exciting to see that," said Babcock, "because it really brought more people onboard."
Portable heaters were used to keep the aircraft warm
and ready to fly throughout its mission to the South Pole.
By September 2007, Babcock had published a detailed guide for South Pole operations, which served as a mission bible when the FAA sent a Challenger 604 to McMurdo as part of a "test run" two months later. "That not only involved preparing the pilots and crew, but also determining whether our equipment would function properly," explained Geiser. "As it turned out, it all came together really well."
Buoyed by the success of this "feasibility flight," Babcock and company dug in their heels, and began preparing for the real thing. A crew was selected, and the agency gathered the spare parts and backup equipment that would be needed should the aircraft have to be repaired on-site.
It all came together on Oct. 18, as Geiser — along two other pilots, one mission specialist, one mechanic, and one avionics technician — took off from Christchurch, New Zealand, on the last leg of their journey to McMurdo Station.
Mission pilots Brett VanMeter (left) and Bill Geiser.
During their week-long stay at McMurdo, the top safety priority was to keep the plane warm, dry, ice-free, and ready to fly at any moment. Not an easy task with wind chills causing temperatures to plunge as low as -20 degrees Centigrade. "We really didn't want to let the airplane get cold-soaked," said Geiser, "because when seals get cold, you can run into leaks."
Both Geiser and Babcock were effusive in their praise for the maintenance crews who worked around the clock, using portable military heaters to warm both the exterior of the plane and the cabin. Babcock was particularly impressed by the ingenuity demonstrated by maintenance workers when they figured out how to tap into the plane's own heating system to melt snow and ice from the aircraft exterior, keeping it bone-dry.
"I'm still checking, but I think we may have created a couple of records for having a corporate jet operate out of the South Pole," beamed Babcock.
While the flight crew did experience some unique South Pole phenomena — including the "fata morgana" mirage that causes small hills on the horizon to appear as large mountain ranges — the navaids inspections at Pegasus and Williams fields went off without a hitch, as did the crew's stay at McMurdo Station.
"It's a lot like a military deployment," said Geiser, explaining that while the station's accommodations are far from luxurious, they are quite comfortable. Babcock noted that there were plenty of activities available for team members during down time, including a tour of "Scott's Hut," British explorer Robert Falcon Scott's 1912 South Pole headquarters.
Among Babcock's biggest surprises was the popularity of McMurdo's "Frosty Boy" ice cream dispenser, which he said was a favorite among station personnel. "You wouldn't think that," he said.
Geiser concluded by saying the success of this mission clears the way for the FAA to use its own aircraft for all future Antarctic flight inspections.
Watch a cockpit video of the Challenger on final approach to Runway 33 at the South Pole's Pegasus Field.