Domenico Romano, astrophysicist and glaciologist, spent the winter at Concordia in 2011. Specially for this blog he wrote about the last aircraft leaving, signalling the start of the long winter.
The arrival of February marks the end of the summer campaign in Concordia. Most of the logistics personnel start leaving the base and human presence is reduced from 60 people to around 20 in just a few days. Among these 20 people are the crew that stay on for the whole winter. The workload intensifies in the run-up to the last plane departure.
Vehicles are stored safely in a cave called the Tubosider, as vehicles cannot be used in the winter due to the fuel freezing. The Tubosider is sealed using a large excavator that compacts ice at the cave’s entrance to prevent snow coming in during the winter storms to come. The excavator is the only vehicle to withstand the harsh temperatures of winter. Its operation is crucial, as the machine and its operator are required for Concordia’s drinking water. The excavator takes snow from specially reserved areas and puts them in a melting tank to melt the ice into water through a system of heaters.
As February progresses the shadows of the two towers become longer. The Sun, after three months of permanent presence, starts to touch the horizon. After many weeks of living under an intense blue the sky starts to be painted with a yellowish reflection reminiscent of sunsets at home. The Antarctic plateau indulges the viewer with whims of light and colour with shades ranging from blue to red. In a few days the Concordia crew will experience their first sunset.
Those who remain have conflicting emotions. On the one hand there is the desire to finally begin the winter adventure, as a spaceship crew might feel as it leaves the safe harbour of Earth-orbit. Once the last plane leaves, there is no chance to leave Concordia. We were well aware that everything depended on us and it was our responsibility to make sure that all went well.
On the other hand there is the sadness of saying goodbye to the people with whom we joked, discussed and worked with side-by-side for weeks. Inevitably bonds were formed. Some of the departing crew we would see again in nine months.
The departure arrived early in the morning. Farewells required a bit of time, final instructions were given to the wintering crew and some of us gave items to be delivered to loved ones.
Shortly after the door closed of the historic DC-3 Dakota aircraft (seeing it from the outside makes it looks more spacious than it actually is) the noise of the first propeller-engine became deafening. Standing in our suits with our hands held high in greeting, the second propeller started spinning and a cloud of dusty ice rose behind the aircraft. The sound of the engines became more acute, a sign that it has increased speed and a few minutes later the plane was on the runway waiting for a "go-fly" from the radio room.
The roar of the engines increased even more and the aircraft accelerates on its runway ice rink. More than a kilometre later it lifted off the ground, climbed and, following tradition, made a wide turn back above Dome C to greet us.
Before realising it, the plane moved away to the point of no longer being visible. In Concordia, the clock registered 10:47 on 5 February 2011. 17:47 Italian time, winterover starts now. We knew that, in case of emergency, we could be retrieved up to the end of February by a special flight from McMurdo station. We are not quite yet in total isolation.
Being the only ones left propelled us for the first time into what was to be our everyday life for the next nine months and we related differently to the base and its spaces in the new situation.
An hour later, tables and chairs were moved to the living room, where during the summer we enjoyed a little relaxation after a meal, chatting and having our weekly meetings. From then on the space was used for dining. A toast to the winterover crew.