If your ringtone is the Top Gun soundtrack and you enjoy flying around in an epic landscape – there is a job for you: Helicopter pilot in Antarctica ! But pilots in Antarctica are not the daredevils that you might think. They are the well trained backbone of polar science. These guys have thousands of flight hours experience, the mechanical knowledge of a robot surgeon and Bear-Grylls type survival skills. So how did they get to their job ?
Let me tell you about our helo-pilot Heff. “It all begins with a normal pilot’s license, mate.” As a Te Anau local, he knows how quickly the weather can change from clear blue skies to howling winds and rain. With very much experience of flying in the ever-changing weather conditions in Fjordland, he moved on to heli-skiing operations in other remote areas of New Zealand. “Especially landing on snow when the light is flat is challenging.” This is because the lack of contrast makes it difficult to estimate how far it is to the ground. With as many take-offs as successful landings, he got the opportunity to fly in Antarctica. Today, Heff returns every season to support New Zealand’s science operations. But he is not only flying around scientists, he is also providing a capable hand whenever it is needed. After our event on the Priestley Glacier, Heff is now a specialist in assembling radar antennas.
Other pilots at Jang Bogo tell similar stories. “A 1000h pilot in tricky conditions is much better suited than a 5000h pilot who never landed on snow.” But there is even more to it than skills. Pilots fly when-ever conditions allow. If the weather allows, they work every day even on the weekends without very much time off. Contrary, if the weather prevents helo operations they have to sit around for several days.
At the moment of writing, the weather at Jang Bogo is quite bad. Winds around 50 knots prevent us and our pilots from flying out to visit the field stations. At the Priestley Glacier, an automatic weather station just measured a gust of 70 knots. I really hope that the instruments survive…