Special Report: Mawson Operations
From where the ship stopped in the ice, the 150 mile trip to Mawson takes around 1 hour 20 minutes to fly and the helicopters at this range can carry only 700kgs of payload (passengers, their baggage and cargo). We planned a flight sequence around those parameters.
After a bit or a problem with one of the helicopters, we finally got going. A willing gang of expeditioners on board helped move, weigh, document, stack, load cargo and the people who were to travel including their personal and walk-on kit. Excluding helicopter crews there were 19 people to go ashore, their personal and cabin luggage and about 3600 kgs of cargo including mail, some fresh fruit and vegetables, urgent general stores and more personal effects from the hold of the ship.
The helicopters we use are Sikorski S76 twin engine machines with a good carrying capacity and mid range endurance. I’ll see if we have a bit more technical information about them and I’ll pass it along. The aircraft are operated by a single pilot. The ships crew together with one of the aircraft engineers are responsible for ‘deck’ facilities - fireman with extinguisher at the ready, aircraft marshaller, fuel loading, handling chocks and tie downs, supervising the loading, checking passengers are properly strapped in and know how to operate the doors, headphones etc. The expeditioners under Gordon’s control handle the cargo going on and off the aircraft - moving the cargo either manually or on trolleys etc. Both helicopters already had their blades on from the time at Davis so at least the crew didn’t have to take time to do that exercise.
On the first morning we managed to get the first helicopter loaded and off the deck at 0933 - a bit later than expected because of a mechanical problem on the helicopter. The second machine was prepared, loaded, fuelled up and off the deck at 1030. Apart from priority passengers and their personal gear the first two helicopters also carried some boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables which Gordon selected from the refrigerated container on deck - apples, pineapples, watermelon, tomatoes and a couple of other items, as well as the 18 mail bags we were carrying for the station.
Once the helicopters were away the expeditioners under Gordon’s control then worked with the ships crew to open and empty out two containers of cargo which were on the hatch covers on the front of the ship. The cargo was packed into nets and the ships crane then lifted and swung the nets onto the deck where they were unpacked, stacked on trolleys and wheeled to the back of the ship and into the hangar for weighing and tagging. When that was done they could all wander off for a break, tea or anything else because it was going to be a while before the helicopters came back. But they did and the small amount of stuff they brought out was unloaded and more people and cargo loaded into them and away. All the deck crew worked very efficiently and we managed to turn the helicopters around - unloaded, refuelled and reloaded in 15-20 minutes on average.
Then it was a bit more tidying up and stacking and stand down till the helicopters came back. And the same again and away again. At around 1800 hours both helicopters came back to the ship and stopped here for the night.
So we shifted a lot during the day and it should only take two flights of each helicopter the next day to finish the job.
On looking at remaining loads and weights etc Gordon decided he could make a trip in to Mawson on the first helicopter, have about a 1/2 hour on the ground and come back to the ship on the second helicopter. The pilots and everyone were really tired tonight so most had an early night.
In the morning all things were set to go, the weather was better than yesterday and a quick bit of work first thing got the remaining fruit and vegetables out of the refrigerated container on the font deck and trundled around to the heli deck and straight into the helicopters. The fruit and vegetables had been maintained at a temperature of +4 degrees C and because the air temperature was around -8 degrees C, it was important that the goods not be left in the open too long because they would freeze. Try freezing a tomato, thawing it out and eating it and you’ll get what I mean.
Gordon collected his cameras and his two precious (blush) companions - OzGold and me, Berkley from Crystal Lake IL, and climbed into the first helicopter with the Pilot Adrian who Gordon has known for many years. And then there was a problem with the helicopter - somewhere in the throttle cabling system. And so it was out of the harness and out of the helicopter. And then in again and out again. Finally we got in and actually lifted off the deck but Adrian brought it down again almost immediately because he wasn’t getting full torque in one of the engines and anything he tried wouldn’t work. Adrian decided to take a lighter load of cargo and the helicopter engineer and hopefully deal with the problem either in the air or on the ground at Mawson. So we climbed out of the helicopter and stayed with the ship for the rest of the time. It was disappointing for us and for Gordon who would dearly have loved to see Mawson for the last time. Never mind - these things happen - the ‘A’ factor. We got the second helicopter away quite quickly after Adrian took off with his lighter load and the heli engineer.
While Gordon was figuring out a whole new flight plan, we got word that they’d manage to fix Adrian’s machine and it was fully serviceable. Unfortunately despite looking at a number of prospects, there was to be no opportunity for Gordon to go into the Station or to take us.
So it was back to the same kind of work as yesterday. Each helicopter only needed to do two flights into Mawson today and only one flight each back to the ship. Eh? Well, the helicopters are to stay at Mawson for a while and when they’ve done their work they will fly to Davis and be based there for the rest of the summer.
So, at 1425 the last flight lifted off the deck with two passengers, Stay and the remaining cargo.
And then we turned the ship north and began working our way out of the ice heading for Heard Island. More of that later.
So who or what is Stay? I’ll tell you about that in another episode.