Applications and Innovations: Get ready for winter
The Deltas are used for excursions when, as a special after-work treat, employees get to travel out onto the sea ice to see Antarctic scenery, penguins and seals. The oversized balloon tires make for a bouncy ride, which may be a comfort, considering how rough the frozen sea ice can be.
By late November, the temperature is getting up around freezing. Though these big-tired ATVs go where light vehicles cannot, Deltas can get stuck, and have to be dug out by hand shoveling, or rescued by tracked vehicles.
A more luxurious passenger transport is affectionately known as Ivan theTerra Bus. This 56-passenger vehicle is manufactured by Foremost and features large low pressure tires for travel over the ice – and real seats.
Says Kristiana Kornegy, passenger vehicle operator supervisor: “The VMF does a great job working to balance the needs of many different departments on station to keep all the vehicles up and running. Our department alone is responsible for about 17 vehicles, some of which are very different from anything you’d see elsewhere. They keep these vehicles operating so that we can keep the passengers moving.”
For many mechanics, including first-timer Marty Fey, the favorite piece of equipment is the Cat D8 LGP, the Stretch 8. These machines have been in Antarctica for 50 years. The VMF even had a birthday party for “Mary Ann” when she turned 50. Built in 1953, she arrived when the Navy first established McMurdo Station back in 1955. The mechanics appreciate that she’s just a no-tech dependable machine, with no fancy electronics. But there also are not many replacement parts.
LGP stands for low ground pressure, and the machine was specifically made for use in an extremely cold, snowy environment. It is longer than a regular D8, and has an extra-wide track to lessen pressure on the snow and ice.
Extreme Maintenance Challenges
Antarctica is famous for its extreme climate. How cold is too cold? The mechanics at McMurdo seem to agree that minus -40º F is the tipping point. Anything above that is pretty normal. Although extreme cold presents challenges, they are predictable. Hydraulic hoses break. Metal gets brittle. Equipment has a harder time starting, so batteries and starters fail.
It turns out that a special Antarctic “trick” is to preheat. Gosdin says, “I’m from Texas, and one thing I’ve learned it that it’s stupid to try to start anything without warming it up, because that will cause damage.” Preheating means that before trying to start the engine, warm it with an external heater. It is a flexible duct heater with gasoline burner made by Herman-Nelson. The mechanics call it a Hermie. Originally used to heat plane engines, it is put under the hood of a bulldozer with tarps over it for half an hour before doing anything else.
Because of the preheating factor, many mechanics prefer the old D8s that were designed and modified for Antarctica in the late 50s or early 60s. Unlike the newer models, they start with a gas engine pony motor, instead of an electric starter. This starter shares coolant with the big engine, so the big engine is warmed before it is engaged to start. Warming for 30-40 minutes spins the engine and rotates the oil. Then it’s time to kick back the compression release, and go for a start-up of the big engine.
“We hire an extremely diverse crew to accommodate the most varied equipment fleet in the world, operating in the harshest conditions. We haven’t found anything we can’t fix.”
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.
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