It's almost time to head to the Ice! The last leg of our flight, from Christchurch to McMurdo, is scheduled for later tonight.
During our time in New Zealand, we make some last-minute preparations for Antarctica. We have to watch some training videos and go through some medical and computer screening, but most importantly, we get outfitted with our Extreme Cold Weather gear (lovingly called our ECW).
We do all of this at the U.S. Antarctic Program's headquarters in Christchurch, which is on the Christchurch airport's property. This is a board at the headquarters displaying all of the cold weather gear we get issued.
We're scheduled to fly later tonight. Normally, we leave for Antarctica in the morning, so that the plane can take us to Antarctica and return to New Zealand (with new passengers and cargo) within the same day. However, they've had to switch us over to flying at night, because the weather has become too warm, which causes damage to the airstrips that are built on the ice over the Ross Sea.
In the map below, you can see the three airstrips near McMurdo Station. (They are the yellow lines towards the bottom.) Pegasus Runway is the main airstrip used for flights from Christchurch at this time of year. It is built on the permanent ice shelf (the gray colored ice on the map) that does not melt each year. The "Ice Runway" is built on the annual sea ice that thaws each year (the blue colored ice on the map), so that airstrip is only used during the colder seasons. Normally, the Ice Runway is used during the colder months, because it's closer to McMurdo and more convenient. However, during the mid-summer, like right now, it naturally melts too much and we have to switch to Pegasus, the main airstrip. (Willy field is also on the permanent ice shelf, but it's only for small aircraft that fly within Antarctica, not for the big aircraft that come from Christchurch.)
Normally Pegasus works just fine throughout the entire summer season, because the permanent ice does not melt even during the summer. However, recently summers have been so warm that the ice runway starts melting. If large planes land during the daytime, they can gouge the ice runway. The weight of the plane is too much for the melting ice. Therefore, we have to land the plane at night when the temperatures are coldest. This has been the case for the past few years.
We were scheduled to take off at 9 PM, which would have us land in McMurdo around 2 or 3 AM. At that time it'll be cold enough to prevent damage to the runway. However, we've already been delayed, and our new take-off time is about 1:30 AM. That will have us in McMurdo in time for breakfast tomorrow! Let's hope there are no more delays, because I'll be sad to miss Waffle Wednesday in the Galley.