Thomas Mead: A day in a US army plane flying to Antarctica

OPINION: It only took a few seconds to make my first mistake.

I was one of the last to board the US air force C130 Hercules, parked at Christchurch Airport, and most of the seats had already been taken.

My colleague and I strapped into two seats right at the front that, for reasons we were soon to discover, had been bypassed by everyone else.

"I wouldn't put your bag there."

The airman giving the warning was straight out of the movies, with the accent and the moustache.

"The last guy had some splashback."

A metre away behind a curtain sat a steel urinal, bolted to the wall.

For the next eight-and-a-half hours, high over the Southern Ocean, we became accustomed to the faint smell of urine.

The C130 doubles as a passenger transport and a cargo hold, with gear strapped all around.
The C130 doubles as a passenger transport and a cargo hold, with gear strapped all around. Photo credit: Newshub.

It was, of course, a small price to pay for a flight to Scott Base, New Zealand's outpost in Antarctica. 

Cameraman Bob Grieve and I were flying into Scott Base with Government agency Antarctica New Zealand, which supports Kiwi scientists researching the frozen continent.

On board were an elite group of researchers, who give up their air-conditioned offices to conduct their work in some of the harshest environments on earth.

They're some of the hardiest operators in science, known for returning year after year and, true to form, no one seemed bothered by the hardy conditions on the flight in.

Earplugs or earmuffs were a must at all times, and to my surprise, many slept through the deafening noise and constant vibration as the plane powered over the Southern Ocean.

Others barely looked up from the graphs and research papers on their laptops, as we slid back and forth on our seats, which strapped into webbing along each side of the plane.

This flight was a shared one - New Zealanders in orange and black, the Italians in red and all as staunch as each other. In a few days they'll be out in the thick of it, studying killer whales from helicopters and analysing climate change data that could plot the future of our planet.

The best thing about the plane was the large windows all around, affording a brilliant view as we approached. We were able to go from window to window, taking photos of ice shelves stretching into the horizon and truly enormous glaciers, which seemed as high as the mountains.

As the hours passed, I decided it was finally time. I couldn't hold it any longer. Like many men before me, I too took my turn to step behind the urinal curtain. Turbulence hit right on cue.

The view of sea ice from the window.
The view of sea ice from the window. Photo credit: Newshub.

With the mission accomplished, I strapped in for landing. The skis underneath the plane hit the snow, and we slid into place safely at the airport in the snow. Then it was onto a giant bus and into bed at Scott Base by 1am.

Now we're on the ice, the real work will begin, and that steel hole in the wall of the plane will soon be exchanged for a pee bottle.

Hopefully there will be no mistakes this time - the key, I hear, is to keep it separate from our water bottles.


Tune in to Newshub Live at 6 on Three over the next two weeks to see stories from Thomas Mead and Bob Grieve as they join New Zealand researchers on the ice.

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