Applications and Innovations: Get ready for winter
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.
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