FLYING ON ICE

June 8, 2010 at 10:26 PM 1 comment

The Press Release, issued:  10 February, 1965,   read in part….

“Antarctic Plane Damaged – Passengers’ Narrow Escape”

“On Sunday night at 8.30 p.m., the Beaver aircraft of the Australian Antarctic Expedition, broke through a weak patch of sea ice…..  On board were the;  Pilot, Surveyor and Radio Operator – Leslie Miller – who were to have landed at Rayner Peak for surveying….”

Unloading the Beaver

For several weeks, I had been working alongside 4 surveyors and 3 fellow radio operators, traversing and surveying several mountain ranges, about 650 kilometres west of Mawson.  The goal was to establish a series of detailed maps of both Kemp Land and MacRobertson land.

Our ship, the “Nella Dan”, was secured in sea ice off the Antarctic coast, from where we were flown 200 kilometres inland, onto the polar plateau.  A surveyor and a radio operator were left at the base of each mountain range, to set up camp, with daily climbs to the summit, carrying the heavy distance-measuring equipment.  Being Summer, we could work through 24 hours of daylight.

It wasn’t always easy going.  A further press release, on 24 February, 1965, noted that the weather had imposed severe limitations on the operations and that, “during periods of storm, survey parties had huddled in tiny tents, in blizzards up to 150 kilometres per hour.”  We were an intrepid lot.

But, back to the night of the 10th.

Seating arrangements in a Beaver, fitted out for operations in Antarctica, were spartan.  It was accepted that the pilot and surveyor had the front seats, with the radio operators flying “economy”.  In my case, this meant sitting on a spare battery down the back.  It was a matter of hanging onto whatever looked remotely secure, during take-offs and landings, or when bouncing around the sky.

Our destination on this evening, was to be Rayner Peak and with our heavy survival gear and radio equipment onboard, the plane lined up for take-off.  We gathered speed and all seemed normal, until we hit a really rough section of ice.  The plane became airborne, but instead of staying in the air, it plunged  downwards – not onto the sea ice, but through it.

There was an incredible crash and a loud grinding noise, as the propellor chewed through the sea ice, firstly turning

Careless!

 the windscreen white and then grey, as we looked down into the Southern Ocean.

The Beaver is a high winged aircraft and we were suspended under the sea, fortunately with the wings supporting us and preventing the plane from diving to the bottom.  Even so, whenever we moved, albeit slightly, the plane rocked from side to side.

Daring to barely breathe, let alone move, we sat motionless and mute for a couple of lifetimes.  The pilot began turning off switches, carrying  out a  procedure that I assumed had been  established for watery occasions, such as this.  Then, pre-dating Apollo 13’s Jim Lovell by 5 years and Tom Hanks by 30, he said,  “Gentlemen, we have a problem.”

You bet!

With the right side of the plane sealed against blizzards, it was the left that provided the only exit.  The surveyor pushed as hard as he could  against the pressure of the water, opening the door just enough for both him and the pilot to make their escape.

My situation was a  little more complicated.  Climbing over the top of the pilot’s seat, I had to crawl across the cockpit to the door, with the plane now nearly filled with water.  Once outside, it was a matter of working my way underneath the wing, to pop up like a frozen cork, with arms and legs flailing, to stay afloat.

We could hear the siren from the “Nella Dan” and it wasn’t long before willing hands pulled us out of the water, rushing us back to the ship, so we didn’t turn into human Icy Poles

Anyone home?

The counselling was brief and unsophisticated.

“Have a shower.  Organise your replacement gear and we will have a helicopter leaving in an hour, with you onboard.”

“But…..”

“What’s your problem?”

 

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Entry filed under: Antarctica - Eastern.

DOGS ON ICE 2010 in review

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. a greek friend  |  January 20, 2016 at 8:28 AM

    Unbelievable – there is a movie opportunity in here somewhere

    Reply

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