Applications and Innovations: Get ready for winter
* 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.
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.
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