Dr. Carole Dangoisse was the ESA-sponsored medical doctor spending 12 months at Concordia research station in Antarctica. She facilitated a number of experiments on the effects of isolation, light deprivation, and extreme temperatures on the human body and mind. In the following post, Carole discusses life in Antarctica. 

Credit: ESA/IPEV/PNRA-C. Dangoisse

Just as the arrival of a new raid is a celebration, each landing of a plane is a highlight. The station becomes a control tower and warnings to stay off the grounds are issued via the intercom. There is no dedicated “air traffic” crew. Instead, the IT and radio team must learn the basics about flight navigation. Concordia is definitely a great opportunity to become multifunctional.

I love watching a tiny dot on the horizon slowly transform into fuselage and wings, and observe the plane’s bumpy slide onto the snow-covered taxiway. Around the middle of the runway, the pilots veer at 90° and glide in between the summer camp and tents, sending flurries of snow over the buildings. The gas pump is located right next to the station so the planes actually come very close. Almost everyone goes out to watch and to get a sprinkling of snow!

As soon as the plane comes to a stop there is an outbreak of feverish activity on all sides: between newcomers getting off the plane, people greeting them, others who stand ready with skidoos to unload the plane as quickly as possible, technicians who immediately refuel the plane and keep the engines warm, or protect them depending on whether or not the plane is staying overnight, personnel eagerly awaiting material, and pretty much all of us hoping for a few treats, there is something for everyone!

There is such enthusiasm that often the crates get carried away before you have had time to peak into them. But what a wonderful surprise when, at the next meal, you discover some kiwis, pears or avocados.

Super pilots

Credit: ESA/IPEV/PNRA-C. Dangoisse

Two kinds of planes can land at Concordia: the Basler (DC3), and the Twin otter (DHC-6), which must stop at midpoint to refuel. “Midpoint” is, simply put, a few barrels of fuel in the middle of nowhere, next to the raid track, between Concordia and Prud’homme.

The pilots and co-pilots try to get as much rest as they can in-between their flights, but we do get a few chances to speak with them and hear all about their summer campaign and the other stations. This is how I learn that the pizza at the US station McMurdo is the best in Antarctica.

The pilots are obviously extremely competent and experienced in flying in unique environments. They must land on ice, take off at high altitude, and operate complex machines in extreme temperatures and on a continent where the sky and snow-covered ground often blur into one.

One of the most renowned Captains is Jim Haffey, whom everyone talks about with reverence. Jim and his crew are the last people we see before the beginning of our winter-over. With the Basler, they bring us the last delivery of fresh food for the next nine months, a few days after the last summer campaigners have left.