Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Antarctica Flight - Chapter 1 (by Jack)

January 17, 2017

[Since there is so much to tell and show in photos about this day, I will divide it into two posts. I am calling them chapters as they are so long they are more like a book! One chapter/post covering our departure from Punta Arenas to our turn point at 75S and another from the turn point back to Marsh airport on King George Island. Many of these photos and videos are from Josh, Jerry, Giuseppe, or Jose (our handler) with many thanks.]

Today is the “big” day…we take-off for Antarctica.

The evening before we were treated to a beautiful rainbow over Punta Arenas which we considered a good omen for our trip the next day…


The weather forecast is great…about as good as you could hope for in this part of the world. Even better, the trend is improvement. The weather at Marsh (SCRM) were will stop for fuel is forecast to be essentially unlimited visibility with just scattered clouds at 3,000 FT.


The early morning winds were forecast to be a little gusty, so when postponed our departure until 0900 local to allow the winds to calm down a bit. Along the route from Marsh to 75S and back, we expected a undercast for about the first half, clear skies for the middle 30%, and then an undercast again for the last 20% or so. At our cruise altitude of FL300 the forecast was clear, smooth, and light winds. While there would be an undercast for a good bit of the route, there was a nice layer of clear air underneath in case we needed to make an emergency descent and landing. The portion of the flight forecast to be clear had the most speculator scenery.

Just about perfect.

We arrive at the Punta Arenas airport (SCCI) around 0800 local and get the plane ready to go. There was not much to do as we had prepared it for a departure we cancelled two days prior.

We were all a little nervous about actually getting the clearance…the official “go” authorization. Giuseppe was flying right seat for this first leg from Punta to Marsh so it fell to him to get the clearance. He made a video of the process (skip to about 3:30 to hear the actual clearance)…

https://youtu.be/bIH7TjQUaiI


Some photos of on the ramp at Punta just before departing for Marsh on the 17th...







The first leg would be relatively short at about 2+45 from SCCI to SCRM where we would refuel as quickly as possible and then depart for 75S.


After getting the all-important clearance, we started-up and departed into nice weather. As we cruised south in clear and smooth air, we were starting to reach the limit of Punta’s VHF radio coverage and they told us to contact them on HF frequency 6649.


No problem…we had been using the HF most of the trip. Giuseppe dialed-in 6649 on the HF and clicked the mike once to initiate the antenna tuning process.

In the old days, airplanes using HF had to roll out a specific length of wire antenna behind the plane for each frequency to be used. Every time a new frequency was used, the wire was either rolled-in or rolled-out to correspond with the new frequency. Modern HF radios use a fixed length antenna and “tune” the antenna to each frequency electronically (via impedance matching Giuseppe tells me).

To start the antenna tuning process, you just click the mic once and the frequency digits flash for about 10-15 seconds and then go solid again indicating the tuning is complete and you can use the radio. After Giuseppe clicked the mic we watched the “6649” digits flash…and flash…and flash. After about a minute they had not stopped flashing. Not good.

We turn-off and then on the HF and try again. Same results. It appears we have our first glitch of the entire trip that could cause a serious delay. We have a sat phone as back-up for contacting ATC, but controllers are within their rights to require you to return to your departure point and get the radio fixed. That could take several days and was something we very much wanted to avoid.

We had no choice other than to inform Punta Radio that we had a problem with our HF and requested a direct dial phone number to them in order to make position reports via our sat phone. We waited anxiously for their response. After what seemed like a long pause and a few times back-and-forth making our request clear, they gave us a phone number and said to proceed. Whew.

For the rest of the flight we just called the controller (the phone line appeared to go directly to the on duty controller for this sector) and made our position reports about once an hour. Since we were now using our backup ATC communications, we sent an text message (using our inReach satellite communicator) to Universal Aviation in Houston (the over-arching handler for the whole trip) with the phone number for the controller and asking them to standby to relay position reports if needed. They readily agreed to do so and thus we now had a back-up for our back-up. For the rest of the trip, making the position reports via sat phone worked well and was easy.

Josh making a position report on the sat phone...


The enroute weather from Punta to Marsh was nice....


About 150 NM north of Marsh, we contacted ATC there on VHF and were quickly given a STAR (standard terminal arrival route) and the VOR Runway 11 approach clearance. We descended under the scattered layer of clouds and started looking for the airport which should have been directly ahead. However, because the runway is gravel it blended-in with the surrounding landscape very well and we were not able to pick it out until a few miles away. Once we did see it, the runway lights were obvious. It even has a PAPI to help with vertical guidance which is nice given the end of the runway is located on a cliff about 140 feet above the ocean. Mesa type runways like this can play tricks with your depth perception so it is nice to have either visual or electronic glideslope guidance.

Photos of the approach to runway 11 at Marsh...






Once again, Giuseppe made a great video of our first approach and landing at Marsh. It went pretty well if I say so myself (start at about 10:00 to see just the landing).

https://youtu.be/fPRDO2VQC-c


We used partial flaps (flaps 15) for the landing in order to allow us to touch down as nose high as possible and keep the nose wheel off the runway as long as we could. At 4,239 feet long, the runway was more than twice as long as we needed, so full flaps were not required. While the PC12 is designed for dirt/gravel/grass runways, with gravel there is always a risk of a small rock being sucked into the prop creating a nick or dent. This sort of damage is almost always very minor and not a “show stopper,” but I wanted to protect the prop as much as we could.


After landing, several people in uniforms were directing us to a small parking spot just off the edge of the runway. It was a bit of a tight fit, but we could not complain. I carefully taxied off the gravel runway onto our gravel parking spot (there is no pavement anywhere on the airport) and shutdown.

Our handler from Aerocardal in Santiago, Jose, had flown commercially to Punta and flown with us to Marsh in order to coordinate getting the fuel and our overnight sleeping accommodations for later that day. Jose would stay in Marsh while we went to 75S and back. Turns out it was important that he came.

N575PC on the ground at Marsh after almost a year of planning….

  
Pretty cool pano of the scene, click to see it better...


Shortly after shutting down while I was giving the plane a post-flight inspection (everything was fine), a fuel “rig” pulls up which is basically a trailer with a small tank of precious Antarctic Jet-A1 fuel and a lawnmower engine powered pump.


Josh managing the refueling process...


Wheels got a little muddy, but that is what this plane is designed to handle...


The Marsh control tower (DGAC is the equivalent of the FAA in the USA)...


Our plane from inside the control tower...


The crew at Marsh after our first landing there...


While Josh handled the refueling, I noticed frost on a small portion of the wing which was very odd as the temperature was relatively warm (about 0C) and there was no precipitation. Upon closer inspection, I could see there was a significant layer of frosty textured ice on a section of the wing over the landing gear about five feet square on both side. The rest of the wing was completely clear. That portion of the wing contains the “collector” fuel tank which is always full and thus fuel is always in contact with both the upper and lower surface of the wing. It seems the fuel in the collector tank became very cold at altitude (almost -50 C) and when the plane stopped in the humid air at the airport the conditions caused frost to form.


We could not depart with any ice on the wings and thus had to figure out a way to remove it. We tried several methods until Giuseppe suggested using our plastic hotel keys from Punta. That worked like a charm, although it took a while with three of us scraping both wings. But, we eventually got the wing totally clear of any contaminates which is required for flight. If we operate in a similar environment again, it might make sense to bring a small supply of de-icing fluid to make clearing this small patch of frost quicker and easier.

Once refueled, the fueler (from DAP Airlines which operates tourists flights to Marsh in Bae146 jets) said we had almost used all the fuel they had allocated for us. We would have enough fuel for the trip to 75S and back to Marsh, but not enough to refuel and get back to Punta. For the second time this day, my heart skipped a few beats. We all looked at Jose who immediately started making phone calls (yes, there is cell service at Marsh) and speaking with the local DAP personnel. After about 15 minutes, Jose comes back and says all is OK…we will have the fuel we need upon returning to Marsh. Whew again. We were glad Jose came with us.

Jose from Aerocardal...


Just prior to our departure, a DAP airlines Bae146 landed which is pretty impressive...

https://youtu.be/vvqxweWkUVQ



Assured of adequate fuel to get home upon our return, Jerry takes his turn in the right seat and calls Marsh tower for clearance. Once again we worried that Punta Radio might say we could not depart on the southern leg of the trip without a working HF radio, but Marsh tower quickly gave us an “as filed” clearance. After a little back-and-forth to ensure we understood how they expected us to depart, we started and taxied our for a departure on runway 11.

Here is a Giuseppe video of Jerry getting the clearance (at least part of it) to 75S from Marsh tower...

https://youtu.be/DEXBGhQgsik



Once again, in order to protect the prop, I accelerated very slowly as we taxied and began the take-off roll. After a short climb through a layer of clouds, we reached our FL300 cruise altitude for the entire round-robin trip and pulled the power back to the long range cruise (LRC) setting. LRC costs about 40 knots of true airspeed, but extends the range at this altitude by about 15%. Given this was an almost 1,700 NM flight to Marsh and back and we wanted to maintain an alternate landing site at the Argentinian base of Marambio (SAWB) which is about 130 NM from Marsh, we needed to stretch our fuel reserves as much as possible. While the plane could have made the trip at max cruise power, it was comforting that the flight plan showed us landing back at Marsh with 2.7 hours of fuel reserve at cruise power and altitude or about 1.6 hours at 5,000 FT and holding power (the engine is less efficient at lower altitudes).

As expected, the outside air temperature (OAT) was close to the minimum OAT for which the plane is approved (-55 C or -67 F). I have never flown the plane in such cold temperatures and thus was closely watching for any unusual behavior, but everything looked normal so far.

At this point, we settled-in for the long flight south and then back north. The flight plan called for 8+14 total flight time. It was only dark at Marsh for about three hours a day, so we would return in good light, but it would be a long day. I would never have attempted this flight solo, but with four experienced pilots on-board, I felt confident we could complete the flight safely.

Here is the general route with a few (but not all) of our emergency landing sites noted...


The first three hours of the flight was over a solid undercast, so not much to see out the window. We kept busy constantly tracking the nearest emergency landing sites (we had about 15 picked-out and programmed into our navigation equipment), making sat phone position reports to Punta Radio, and enjoying lunch and a few snacks.

Some folks have asked about emergency preparation. While the probabilities of needing to land off-airport on this flight (or any flight) are extremely remote (around 80% of accidents are caused by pilot error, not a fault of the machine), we were well prepared in case we did need to “land out.”

First, we spent a lot of time identifying emergency landing sites all along the route and entered them all as user waypoints in our navigation equipment. Thus, we could just pull-up the nearest user waypoint page and immediately know where to go. The Chief Pilot of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) was very helpful in guiding us to select the best sites. He even sent us (from Antarctica) some special BAS Air Unit maps that included their designated emergency landing sites. While the distances in Antarctica are vast, our plane is a very good glider and even with no power at all we had 150 NM diameter glide cone around us (about 23,000 square statue miles) from FL300, so that helps expand options even in a remote place like Antarctica.

While one can never say for sure what would happen in serious event (loss of power, unconstrained smoke, fire, etc.) that demands an immediate landing off-airport, we felt good that we had selected enough emergency landing sites that might result in significant damage to the plane, but would allow the whole crew to return home safely. In terms of surviving while waiting for help if an off-airport landing was required, we had polar certified tents, sleeping bags, stoves, one week worth for freeze dried food for four people, and a top of the line survival kit on-board. Finally, we had five GPS/satellite personal locator beacons on-board to assure help would know exactly where we were.

While there was a safety reason to continually pour over the charts thinking about emergency contingencies, it was also fun to learn more about the geography of this most remote place on the planet.

Here is Jerry reviewing the annotated BAS map with our emergency landing sites marked...


The maps themselves are beautiful...


Just north of our 75S turn-point, we would directly over-fly one of these emergency landing sites…a very small British Antarctic Survey outpost called Sky Blu (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sky_Blu). Sky Blu consists of a “blue ice” runway suitable for wheeled aircraft, a few huts to accommodate 2-3 heartily souls that are based there, and drums of jet fuel and light equipment to maintain the ice runway. The station is mainly a refueling point for BAS aircraft headed further south from the main BAS base at Rothera. Importantly for us, Sky Blu was one of four emergency landing sites along the route where our plane could landing normally without much risk of damage to the machine or the crew. Here are some photos of Sky Blu (credit BAS)….


We understood that Sky Blu had aviation band radio equipment, but generally monitored it only when the small crew were expecting an incoming flight, so did not expect to be able to talk to them. But, what the heck, we had nothing better to do so when about 50 NM north of the outpost we gave them a call on VHF 118.1.

Much to our surprise, we got almost an immediate response from a BAS Dash-7 aircraft on the ground at Sky Blu preparing to depart. The Dash-7 is one awesome aircraft…here is a cool photo of it landing on the blue ice runway at Sky Blu (credit BAS)…


The Dash 7 crew was very talkative and we had a running conversation with them for more than an hour once we turned northbound as we were flying the same route toward Rothera as they were. We were about 9,000 feet above them, so at one point they adjusted their speed to see if they could get a photo of us pulling contrails from below (not uncommon even for a turboprop in these cold temperatures). Alas, we were not producing a contrail.

As we continued south past Sky Blu, our ultimate destination came into view…75 degrees south longitude. The whole crew gathered in and around the cockpit with cameras focused on the navigation equipment and our three flight recorders in order to capture the event.

Some of the landscape around 75S72W...



https://youtu.be/vxECM_FuUQg


A video of the navigation equipment crossing our elusive boundary...

https://youtu.be/RtHlq2W2OTQ

 

This post is far too long already and the flight is only half-way done. If you have read this far, thank you! Next installment will cover the reminder of the flight.