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Arctic Flights

I’d like you to meet Henry Malmgren. Malmgren pushes our little global village, quite literally, to the ends of earth.

Malmgren, whose offseason home is Austin, Texas, has been stationed at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station since early this year, part of a team of 75. “Our location is pretty easy to find,” he explains. “Just go south until you start going north again.” Malmgren works for Raytheon Polar Services, which currently holds a contract from the National Science Foundation. As Network Engineer, it’s his duty to keep the computers running and maintain an Internet connection back to the States.

One often hears of Antarctic research facilities, but I often wonder what kind of research, exactly, is going on down there. I mean, how many glacial core samples do scientists need? Especially when you can hardly step outside for half the year. The South Pole winter has just ended, providing Malmgren and his crew some sorely needed twilight after four months of total darkness.

“We focus mainly on astronomy, atmospheric science and seismology,” he says. “The atmosphere here is extremely dry and stable, which means excellent conditions for astronomers.”

Malmgren’s outpost receives up to 350 support flights every year. Because the snow surface isn’t strong enough to support wheeled aircraft, the planes are equipped with skis. The standard is a specialized C-130 Hercules flown by the Air National Guard, or sometimes a Twin Otter. The Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing, out of Scotia, New York, is the dedicated supplier of US Antarctic program. Missions are usually staged via Christchurch, New Zealand.

A third of these flights carry nothing but fuel for the Amundsen-Scott facility. The rest, we assume, carry salt pork and dirty magazines, before returning to America with glacial core samples and penguin bone scrimshaw.

Excepting medical evacuations, the flying season runs from October to February, in other words the Antarctic summer, when the climate is less extreme. This winter’s lowest temperature reached -107 degrees F (-77 C).

“Right now we’re in the process of building the new runway,” says Malmgren. “It’s a tough job and takes about six days of grooming for the C-130 to land. About three days into it we had a huge storm that wiped out all our efforts.”

All flights to Amundsen-Scott transit through the US base at McMurdo, about 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) away on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. That’s a three-hour trip by plane, and Malmgren describes the view as “one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.” McMurdo is the logistics hub for most of the continent, and has three separate airfields. One is made of compacted snow, suitable only for skis. Two others are flat stretches of sea ice, expansive enough for heavy jet transports like the C-17 and C-141, but usable only for a month or two, until the surface begins to soften.

From McMurdo, C-130s and Twin Otters ferry provisions to various temporary camps, to permanent setups like Amundsen-Scott, and occasionally to foreign bases like Russia’s Vostok, or the Italian-French station called Dome-C.

“We also get the occasional tourist flight,” adds Malmgren.

Indeed. Unbeknownst to many, one of the worst-ever airplane disasters was the crash of Air New Zealand flight 901, an Antarctic sightseeing charter, in 1979. The exact chain of mistakes — and the legacy of controversies that ensued — is a thesis-length article for another time, but the crew of the DC-10 became disoriented after a navigational waypoint discrepancy. The jet was drawn off course and collided with the 12,000-foot Mt. Erebus.

Air New Zealand hadn’t suffered a fatality in almost 40 years of operations, and the carrier’s Antarctic overflights were very popular. Well-known adventurers and explorers would ride along as tour guides. Immediately after the crash in ’79, rumors circulated that New Zealand’s most famous citizen, Sir Edmund Hillary, had been guest speaker on the doomed excursion. This turned out not to be the case, but a colleague of Hillary’s — the polar explorer Peter Mulgrew — and 256 others were killed. For a glimpse of the exact DC-10 involved in the accident, click here.

This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.