Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Antarctic Airmen Down

For those of you who haven't heard, there was a small plane lost in Antartica last week.  The downed plane was a Twin Otter operated by Ken Borak Air (KBA), a Canadian company that does much of the contract flying near both poles and also does much of the near fixed wing support for McMurdo scientists.  This particular Twin Otter was supporting a nearby Italian base and was flying from the South Pole Station to the Italian base, a little north of McMurdo.

Showing up for work one day last week, we were told an aircraft was overdue and that an ELT (emergency locator transmitter) had been activated but no other communications had been heard.  This was an ominous sign as ELTs are activated by the force of an impact or at the least a hard landing.  And so the wait began...

One hundred knot winds and overcast skies kept the search and rescue (SAR) crews from locating the aircraft.  Still, one plane circled for 7 hours hoping to make contact with the three person Canadian crew of the Twin Otter.  Eventually a few aganizing days later the plane was sighted and it was assumed unsurvivable, apparently having flown into the mountain in a left bank, I believe.  A few days after that, the SAR team made it to the aircraft after having been dropped off on a ridge above the Otter, descended the few hundred meters over crevasses terrain at 13,000 feet.  They were prepared for a recovery mission, but because of the impact they could not get tot the cockpit.  Instead they were able to get the cockpit voice recorder and some personal belongings to bring home to family members of the deceased - a pilot, a co-pilot and a flight mechanic.  (A full accident investigation is now underway and it seems weather will be the primary cause.)

It was a strange time to be at McMurdo.  With a thousand people, there is enough disconnect where things continue without missing a beat.  But then there are there are those that haven't slept for 30 hours because they've been preparing for a search and rescue.  Then there are the others who when asked how they are doing, answer with tears after having communicated with the search parties over the radio all day.  And then there is me, feeling helpless in McMurdo.

Last night, there was an outside memorial service for the fallen aircrew.  I had never been to a memorial service for downed airmen and as a pilot myself, it was particularly moving.  A few words and prayers were said, followed bByatt minute of silence, followed by taps, which I had been asked to play.  I kept my little pocket trumpet inside my down jacket to keep it warm, and broke the silence with the horn blowing the sounds of farewell towards McMurdo Sound.

A few minites later, there was a fly-by.  First by a DC-3 Baslar and then by a Twin Otter, both aircraft of KBA and both in service here at McMurdo, flown by flig crews who surely knew the crew that perished.  After a few extra minutes of silence, the sight and sound of those aircraft spaced maybe 30 seconds apart, flying low and in honor of their fallen comrades, was something to behold.  I have never been so moved by an aircraft and all that it was flying for.  All that were there watched them pass over the Sound and then the service was completed.  Attendees were. To to mill about outside as it was windy and cold intrue Antarctic fashion, but I had to linger to watch the planes head towards the mountains, and then slowly make their way back to the Pegasus white ice runway, near 10 miles away, almost as if they didn't want to come if they didn't want to leave the amazing world their friends were lost in. Nearing the end of this summer season on the Ice, I contemplated the wonders of this continent, of flying, and the brotherhood that is forged by the two.

A few folks came up to me afterwards to thank me for my contribution - such a simple gesture on their part, but so appreciated by me.  If there was nothing I could have done to save the crew, at the very least I could honor them.  For this I was very thankful.  Many prayers sent to the crew's families.
Here is the poem, High Flight, by John Gillespie Magee, written in 1941that was printed on the service program:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor ever eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

The memorial service at the South Pole (From the KBA website).
For bios and pics of the men who died:

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