Applications and Innovations: Get ready for winter
It almost seems as if the mechanics relish the many challenges of Antarctica. “We hire an extremely diverse crew to accommodate the most varied equipment fleet in the world, operating in the harshest conditions,” Supervisor Story says. “We haven’t found anything we can’t fix. “
Ten Tips from McMurdo Station
…and what these guys say is vital and surprisingly familiar
1. If the temperature is below zero, has the machine been kept warm by plugging it in?
2. Has the machine been warmed up before driving off?
3. Are the fluids correct and at proper levels?
4. Are you putting in the right fuel?
5. Is there air in the tires? Temperature extremes mean dramatic psi changes.
6. Is the brake on?
7. Are you following the operator checklist for daily maintenance, and taking the machine in for scheduled service?
8. Are you aware of all conditions — wind, temperature, visibility, terrain?
9. Did you walk around looking for obstructions, including snow and ice in the engine compartment?
10. Have you been checked out to operate this piece of equipment?
It’s 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 28 at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Twenty-five vehicle mechanics have assembled outside the Vehicle Maintenance Facility (VMF) with seven pieces of oddball Antarctic heavy equipment. All are wearing their extreme cold weather gear. They have completed the check-out process required before leaving the station. Survival bags and emergency food and water have been packed into the equipment.
“Gentlemen, start your engines!” heavy mechanic Bob Gosdin shouts. And everyone fires up. It’s the beginning of the annual “Caravan of Misfit Toys.” The trek will cover 10 miles over frozen sea ice from McMurdo Station to Cape Evans, a historic site so protected that someone in the party must have special training. “It’s always a thrill to see all these old diesels come to life,” says VMF supervisor Jim Story.
One by one the vehicles roar out of the VMF yard onto the cindery road to the sea ice: first a 2001 PistenBully 100, then two 1990 Tucker 1743D Sno Cats named Ellie Mae and Jethro, a 1982 Nodwell CF-110 named T Rex, a 1987 Nodwell CF-110 named Crash 3, a 1984 1740C Tucker, and finally a 1995 “stretch” Challenger DV87.
Almost nothing in the caravan is less than 10 years old. All have been subjected to the brutal combination of extreme cold, wind, dryness, rough icy terrain most of the year. But the rest of the time it’s slushy, get-stuck-in-the-snow conditions. Mix in a good dose of the crunchy, often dusty volcanic soil that surrounds McMurdo Station, and you have the ultimate challenging environment for vehicles.
This excursion has a dual purpose. It is a rare get-out-of-town fun trip for the mechanics. Says Story, “Team building is important, especially in deployed environment such as Antarctica. Similar to the military environment, going on excursion together is great for building working relationships, especially among shifts. We go on a Saturday night, the one time that almost everyone is off work.” Of course the sun will stay up high in the sky for the entire all-night trip – it’s summer in Antarctica!
A big difficulty is finding the right vehicles. A trip to Cape Evans involves crossing the sea ice, which by this time of the summer is getting quite soft. The usual wheeled passenger transport vehicles can get stuck. So tracked vehicles are the best way to go. Most vehicles are allocated out to research and logistics teams, so the VMF has to do some scrambling.
What better machines for a group of mechanics, though, than the ones that are believed to be too old or to have mechanical problems. It’s a glorious test drive. “With a bunch of mechanics, we can get out of any jam, so we might we well get that old stuff out to see what it will do,” says Story. Often it’s hard to get customers to tell the mechanics what’s wrong. This way, we can see for ourselves, and get it fixed.”
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