Transit To Antarctica: What Lies Beyond the Point of No Return

“Hello this is your captain speaking…… we are crossing the point of no return and should be landing in Antarctica in the next hour and a half……. Please put on your extreme weather gear and be prepared to land” – New Zealand Airforce Captain of the Boeing 757 in route from Christchurch New Zealand, to Antarctica

The penguin team has been in a bit of a travel limbo as the C17 that was supposed to fly us down to Scott Base over a week ago has been out of commission due to a hydraulic issue, sending us back to our ohhh too familiar hotel. At the hotel we have spent enough time to make friends with all the hotel staff, who have been incredibly courteous and offered us jobs if we continue to get delayed. Anyways back to the C17 which is a beast of plane that is an essential lifeline to Antarctica as its high carrying capacity is one of the primary way gear and people are transported South. Most of our field gear along with many other projects continues to wait in the belly of the plane including the very helicopter that will transport us to our remote field camp.

To aid in transporting people to the ice the New Zealand air force has been called in to relay some gear and scientists down to Antarctica on a Boeing 757. Here we go again! We set our alarms for 530 am, go to sleep, wake up put on all our extreme weather gear and lug our bags optimistic that we will get our chance go. As we arrive at the terminal, we are issued our tickets that look like numbered tags that we proudly display after our bags are weighed and sent through an x-ray before we ourselves are weighed with all our heavy gear on. Ticket in hand we head travel to the nearest coffee shop devour our last cappuccinos before returning to the terminal to receive a video briefing, move through security and jump on a bus to meet our plane.

Through the bus window our broken C17 is visible as it rests. We are all briefed again and told to grab a bagged lunch and make our way onto the 757. It is hard not to get excited at this point. We are all on the plane and unlike the C17 we are on a plane with windows, that’s right a plane with windows to see the transitional phases of the seascape from the open ocean to ice and finally ice-covered land.

The flight to Antarctica is relatively short five hours and forty minutes and was like any commercial flight you have ever been on with the occasional drink service. The only real difference is the excitement of the passengers as “ooooooohs”and “ahhhhhhs” are frequently heard as we all gaze out the small circular windows at the seascapes. About four hours into our flight the message from the captain indicated we had reached the point of no return (PONR). While the phrase is self-explanatory, I will offer a bit more context. The PONR is the point at which the captain of the plane must decide to turn around or land the plane in Antarctica. This is a bit of a tough call as fuel is limited and from that point on the plane may not have enough fuel to return to the nearest land back in New Zealand. When the PONR was announced, we all quickly put on our hot extreme weather gear and started to sweat.

Forty minutes passed the icy continent was visible. Our hopes and dreams were coming true and there was no turning around…….or so we thought.

“Hi everyone, we are being rerouted back to New Zealand due to foggy conditions at McMurdo and should have just enough fuel to land at the southern tip of New Zealand to refuel. Thank you for your patients”.

Those who had been delayed before started laughing in a confused combination of emotions. In contrast, those who have never experienced a “boomerang” flight before slumped in their sweaty seats with their disappointment hidden behind their N95 masks.

So, what lies beyond the point of no return? Do we have enough fuel to get back to New Zealand? Are we going to have to emergency land? As we all pondered this unusual circumstance, the plane gently turned around and headed back to New Zealand.

Due to a strong headwind, our flight was forced to refuel an hour short of our destination as our pilot prepared the cabin for landing at the southernmost tip of New Zealand’s South Island. While this landing seemed to be routine to us, the locals at the airport were quick to tell us this was not any ordinary occasion as they slid their mobile phones out to snap a picture of the proportionally giant plane-to-runway ratio of the New Zealand Air Force 757 behemoth arriving at its unexpected destination. The plane spent an hour refueling as we all stared out the windows at the farmland sprinkled with sheep, and once the locals finished snapping their pictures, we were on our way back to Christchurch.

After spending close to 11 hours on a plane in limbo the tired crew and passengers departed the plane and headed back to our hotels. So, what lies beyond the point of no return? Well, you end up back where you started. With sore backs and dried tears, the penguin team embraced their warm pizzas and went to bed, ready to give it another go.

Turns out this was a there and back again kind of story. We will have to try again soon,

Penguin Team