Way down south where it’s really cold
Equipment care in Antarctica means always knowing how to deal effectively with ice and snow. There is no room for error.
By Carol Fey, Special to Better Roads
Once a year, the South Pole Traverse hauls supplies and fuel from coastal McMurdo Station more than 1,000 miles over ice to South Pole Station. McMurdo receives one annual supply ship and one fuel ship. Until recently, South Pole’s provisions had to be flown on LC-130s – ski-equipped planes known as “skiers.”
The Traverse is a caravan of nine vehicles: four Case STX Quad Trac tractors, models 450, 530 and 535; four Caterpillars, models MT865B and MT865C, and Challenger 95E; and a tracked radar vehicle to detect crevasses in the ice. The crevasse detector travels in front of the tractors, using ground-penetrating radar to sense dangerous ice cracks. The cracks are then filled with snow and compacted to create a safe passageway.
The tractors pull large sleds of cargo and fuel. To minimize ground pressure, the sleds are actually sheets of high molecular weight polyethylene (HMW), 1/2 inch thick, 8 feet wide and 68 feet long,
Ten crew members make up the traverse: a field supervisor, a shop foreman, a field instructor, three heavy equipment mechanics and four heavy equipment operators.
In 2009-2010, the traverse made it from McMurdo Station to South Pole in 27 days, gaining 10,000 feet in elevation, traveling 1,036 miles at an average of seven miles per hour. The tractors were loaded to carry just under their maximum. Whenever they stopped, it took some time to get them back up to speed because the sled surfaces cooled.
The Traverse delivered 94,626 gallons of fuel, as well as 40,000 pounds of cargo. According to traverse operations manager Paul Thur, on average one pound of support equipment – tractors, buildings, food, fuel – was required for each pound of deliverable cargo. Traveling downhill and loaded only with waste from South Pole, the Traverse was able to return to McMurdo in just 17 days.
There are nearly 500 vehicles in the United States Antarctic Program. In the summer, 32 people work in the Vehicle Maintenance Facility (VMF); in the winter there are 16. Many have done this 10 seasons or more. As a result, the equipment is well-known and well-loved.
Heavy mechanic Bob Gosdin’s favorite piece of equipment is the Delta truck, because all of the parts and components, especially transmissions, are very rebuildable. “That’s especially important when the parts manufacturers are out of business,” he says.
Originally an articulated 4WD flat-bed truck made by Foremost for the Canadian tundra and other hard-to-access areas, the Delta fits into many Antarctic special purposes. Besides hauling general cargo, the Delta has been used as a specially-modified launch vehicle for the long duration balloon (LDB) scientific project, which sends multi-million dollar payloads into the upper atmosphere.
The most visible use of Deltas at McMurdo is as passenger transport vehicles. The oldest is the 1977 Delta 2, named Delta Gale. A passenger compartment, which looks like an orange sheetmetal box, is mounted on the back. It contains bench seats enough for 20 people. Seatbelts are required attire. The ride into “town” from the airport in the Delta is often the first of many culture shocks when a new person arrives at McMurdo.
The Deltas are used for excursions when, as a special after-work treat, employees get to travel out onto the sea ice to see Antarctic scenery, penguins and seals. The oversized balloon tires make for a bouncy ride, which may be a comfort, considering how rough the frozen sea ice can be.
By late November, the temperature is getting up around freezing. Though these big-tired ATVs go where light vehicles cannot, Deltas can get stuck, and have to be dug out by hand shoveling, or rescued by tracked vehicles.
A more luxurious passenger transport is affectionately known as Ivan theTerra Bus. This 56-passenger vehicle is manufactured by Foremost and features large low pressure tires for travel over the ice – and real seats.
Says Kristiana Kornegy, passenger vehicle operator supervisor: “The VMF does a great job working to balance the needs of many different departments on station to keep all the vehicles up and running. Our department alone is responsible for about 17 vehicles, some of which are very different from anything you’d see elsewhere. They keep these vehicles operating so that we can keep the passengers moving.”
For many mechanics, including first-timer Marty Fey, the favorite piece of equipment is the Cat D8 LGP, the Stretch 8. These machines have been in Antarctica for 50 years. The VMF even had a birthday party for “Mary Ann” when she turned 50. Built in 1953, she arrived when the Navy first established McMurdo Station back in 1955. The mechanics appreciate that she’s just a no-tech dependable machine, with no fancy electronics. But there also are not many replacement parts.
LGP stands for low ground pressure, and the machine was specifically made for use in an extremely cold, snowy environment. It is longer than a regular D8, and has an extra-wide track to lessen pressure on the snow and ice.
Extreme Maintenance Challenges
Antarctica is famous for its extreme climate. How cold is too cold? The mechanics at McMurdo seem to agree that minus -40º F is the tipping point. Anything above that is pretty normal. Although extreme cold presents challenges, they are predictable. Hydraulic hoses break. Metal gets brittle. Equipment has a harder time starting, so batteries and starters fail.
It turns out that a special Antarctic “trick” is to preheat. Gosdin says, “I’m from Texas, and one thing I’ve learned it that it’s stupid to try to start anything without warming it up, because that will cause damage.” Preheating means that before trying to start the engine, warm it with an external heater. It is a flexible duct heater with gasoline burner made by Herman-Nelson. The mechanics call it a Hermie. Originally used to heat plane engines, it is put under the hood of a bulldozer with tarps over it for half an hour before doing anything else.
Because of the preheating factor, many mechanics prefer the old D8s that were designed and modified for Antarctica in the late 50s or early 60s. Unlike the newer models, they start with a gas engine pony motor, instead of an electric starter. This starter shares coolant with the big engine, so the big engine is warmed before it is engaged to start. Warming for 30-40 minutes spins the engine and rotates the oil. Then it’s time to kick back the compression release, and go for a start-up of the big engine.
“We hire an extremely diverse crew to accommodate the most varied equipment fleet in the world, operating in the harshest conditions. We haven’t found anything we can’t fix.”
Jim Story, Vehicle Maintenance Facility (VMF) supervisor
Doing repairs “out in the field” is a bigger headache. Changing a loader tire or fixing a flat in sub-zero weather with the wind howling is hard work. What should take an hour or two can take all day by the time the Herman Nelson heater is working and blankets or tarps are set up.
Safety, of course, is an added concern in extreme cold:
* Although there is a local clinic, serious medical help is far away, a five-hour flight to New Zealand — when the weather permits.
* Even ordinarily minor cuts and strains heal quite slowly.
* Bodies behave differently in extreme cold — everyone is less flexible, and sometimes it’s hard to think.
* Frostbite can happen before you know it.
* Outside the station weather can become deadly very fast —temperature drop, wind, and loss of visibility from blowing snow or fog.
* Fire — surprisingly — is the greatest danger in Antarctica. If you are in a vehicle outside the station, it’s your shelter. If it burns, there’s nowhere else to go.
Wind, in fact, is one of the biggest causes of damage. Something as simple as not noticing the wind direction can tear up vehicle doors.
Warm, sloppy weather. A little-known weather condition in Antarctica is warm weather. That’s anything above freezing. But, in fact, starting around Thanksgiving and going into February, soft and melting snow and ice can cause difficulties around McMurdo Station. Wheeled vehicles get stuck, and eventually cannot be permitted out onto the sea ice. Transmissions and drive trains get fried. And the tracks of the tracked vehicles — such as Mattrack-retrofitted pickup trucks – break.
At times, vehicles have to be rescued from being stuck in soft ice and snow. An old hand at that is the Nodwell 110 tracked vehicle. Says mechanic Steve Raver, “We call it T Rex because it’s really loud, really strong, and old enough to be a dinosaur.”
Sheer Volume of Work
The VMF works around the clock. Like for everyone else at McMurdo, a 10-hour work day (or night), with an hour off for lunch, six days a week, is normal. Even so, there is no a shortage of work to be done. Besides the toll that the climate takes directly on the equipment, there is also the effect that it has on the drivers. When drivers are new to Antarctica, it’s easy for them to not understand the limitations of the equipment. And it’s possible for operators to fill up with the wrong fuel, such as putting gasoline (MOGAS) in diesel machines.
A constant maintenance headache is not having the right parts. Everyone knows the frustration of a warehouse full of parts, but not the right one. The difference in Antarctica is that there is no supply house down the street to go to pick up the missing item. Supplies arrive only once a year on the supply ship from Los Angeles. With the number and variety of vehicles, it’s impossible to have every part on hand. This is complicated by the fact that some of the older tried-and-true vehicles no longer have replacement parts available.
The need for specific parts keeps the machine shop busy either fixing broken parts or fabricating replacements. Or with any luck there might be a vehicle out on the “dead line” that might provide the necessary part.
It almost seems as if the mechanics relish the many challenges of Antarctica. “We hire an extremely diverse crew to accommodate the most varied equipment fleet in the world, operating in the harshest conditions,” Supervisor Story says. “We haven’t found anything we can’t fix. “
Ten Tips from McMurdo Station
…and what these guys say is vital and surprisingly familiar
1. If the temperature is below zero, has the machine been kept warm by plugging it in?
2. Has the machine been warmed up before driving off?
3. Are the fluids correct and at proper levels?
4. Are you putting in the right fuel?
5. Is there air in the tires? Temperature extremes mean dramatic psi changes.
6. Is the brake on?
7. Are you following the operator checklist for daily maintenance, and taking the machine in for scheduled service?
8. Are you aware of all conditions — wind, temperature, visibility, terrain?
9. Did you walk around looking for obstructions, including snow and ice in the engine compartment?
10. Have you been checked out to operate this piece of equipment?
Caravan of the Misfit Toys
It’s 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 28 at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Twenty-five vehicle mechanics have assembled outside the Vehicle Maintenance Facility (VMF) with seven pieces of oddball Antarctic heavy equipment. All are wearing their extreme cold weather gear. They have completed the check-out process required before leaving the station. Survival bags and emergency food and water have been packed into the equipment.
“Gentlemen, start your engines!” heavy mechanic Bob Gosdin shouts. And everyone fires up. It’s the beginning of the annual “Caravan of Misfit Toys.” The trek will cover 10 miles over frozen sea ice from McMurdo Station to Cape Evans, a historic site so protected that someone in the party must have special training. “It’s always a thrill to see all these old diesels come to life,” says VMF supervisor Jim Story.
One by one the vehicles roar out of the VMF yard onto the cindery road to the sea ice: first a 2001 PistenBully 100, then two 1990 Tucker 1743D Sno Cats named Ellie Mae and Jethro, a 1982 Nodwell CF-110 named T Rex, a 1987 Nodwell CF-110 named Crash 3, a 1984 1740C Tucker, and finally a 1995 “stretch” Challenger DV87.
Almost nothing in the caravan is less than 10 years old. All have been subjected to the brutal combination of extreme cold, wind, dryness, rough icy terrain most of the year. But the rest of the time it’s slushy, get-stuck-in-the-snow conditions. Mix in a good dose of the crunchy, often dusty volcanic soil that surrounds McMurdo Station, and you have the ultimate challenging environment for vehicles.
This excursion has a dual purpose. It is a rare get-out-of-town fun trip for the mechanics. Says Story, “Team building is important, especially in deployed environment such as Antarctica. Similar to the military environment, going on excursion together is great for building working relationships, especially among shifts. We go on a Saturday night, the one time that almost everyone is off work.” Of course the sun will stay up high in the sky for the entire all-night trip – it’s summer in Antarctica!
A big difficulty is finding the right vehicles. A trip to Cape Evans involves crossing the sea ice, which by this time of the summer is getting quite soft. The usual wheeled passenger transport vehicles can get stuck. So tracked vehicles are the best way to go. Most vehicles are allocated out to research and logistics teams, so the VMF has to do some scrambling.
What better machines for a group of mechanics, though, than the ones that are believed to be too old or to have mechanical problems. It’s a glorious test drive. “With a bunch of mechanics, we can get out of any jam, so we might we well get that old stuff out to see what it will do,” says Story. Often it’s hard to get customers to tell the mechanics what’s wrong. This way, we can see for ourselves, and get it fixed.”
This night, Story says, most everything ran beautifully. Early in the evening the two D-class Tuckers got hot, both at the same time. “So we stopped, and the mechanics opened hoods and let wind blow. One thing it’s easy to do in Antarctica is cool things off.” The mechanics identified why they overheated and were easily able to fix the machines later back at the shop.
Later in the night, T Rex had typical Nodwell trouble – a hot rear end. It was a perfect opportunity for the mechanics to get a laundry list of problems.
Allowing for the 10 mph maximum speed, time to visit Explorer Scott’s historic 1911 Cape Evans hut and snap some pictures of penguins and seals, it was an all-night trip. “Going out on these old machines,” says Story, “is a fitting part of going to a historical site.”
Carol Fey worked in Antarctica for two seasons as a heating mechanic, and as an emergency communications operator. You can reach her at www.carolfey.com. The U.S. Antarctic Program is managed by the National Science Foundation. To learn more about this program go to www.usap.gov.v