Sunday, May 4, 2008

Last Flight

(This was a "travelogue" e-mail, sent out on April 17, 2008)

Well, the last plane has just hit the skies. There was a lot of tension and speculation around town regarding the last flight, but it came in and went out without a hitch. It’s a nice, warm, relatively calm day today (+10F, 15mph), so the plane had no worries. This time of year (approaching the final sunset) can bring unsettled weather, and severe storms are not uncommon. Murphy ’s Law would have indicated a Herbie for today, but evidently Murphy was wrong. (A Herbie is a severe Antarctic storm, blowing into McMurdo from the south. The name is a combination of hurricane and blizzard.) There is a McMurdo tradition of turning out to salute the departing flight from the Chalet (NSF administration building). That building has already been winterized so we couldn’t go inside, but eight of us managed to follow the tradition from out on the deck, with champagne (for those so inclined), or Hershey’s kisses (for the champagne-averse). It’s an emotional time around the station—we have developed strong bonds with the “extended season” crew, and it’s hard to watch them go. Our population just went from about 220, to around 130 for the winter, with five or six fresh bodies coming in on the last flight. One fellow who works for NASA was scheduled to come in on this flight, but didn’t make it. He flew from his home in Alabama to LAX, where he discovered he had lost his passport. He managed to get his documentation covered somehow, and jetted all the way to Christchurch, only to miss the military flight to the ice. Oops. Probably a good thing for him—he might not have survived the grief we would have given him if he had made it. I’m sure his boss is none too happy, as it turned out. I have heard a lot of winter-over veterans say that a wave of grief and regret hits them when the last plane leaves—there is a certain feeling of being doomed that descends when you know there is no way out. That feeling hasn’t hit me yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it does. The next plane won’t get here for five more months, with no mail, freshies, or way to leave. In the case of a dire medical emergency, they would find a way to do a med-evac, but it would probably cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and be quite risky. It’s now time to get back to work, and to adapt to a slower, less social style of living. There will still be a lot of parties, bingo, radio darts, and tons of stuff to do; there will just be less of us doing it. In about a week, the sun will dip below the horizon for the last time. It will only be pitch dark for three of the next five months, but I’m sure that will be plenty. It’s an adventure!


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