Kelly's Awful Airline
January 1965 Popular Mechanics

May 1968 Popular Mechanics
May 1968 Popular Mechanics - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

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Kelly's Awful Airline

Flying the world's most hostile routes, tough polar crews boast a 5000-mile runway, spinning compasses and survival practice at 50 below

By Theodore Berland

The shrieks of the spinning, jet-powered props dropped to gentle whines, then stopped silently. The forward door of the belly-low C-130 Hercules opened and a smiling admiral stepped out onto a small red carpet that was spread on the blue ice for the occasion.

He was followed by his aide, by other officials, and newsmen invited for the trip. Hands snapped to salutes, then came down for shaking; flashbulbs popped and shutters clicked.

Then the party of VIPs walked off toward heavy-tired vehicles that would transport them three miles over frozen sea to McMurdo Station, headquarters base of the United States in Antarctica.

Finally, almost unnoticed, out of the .ski-shod airplane came the pilot. He had just skippered the historic flight over the bottom of the world-nonstop from Cape Town, South Africa, 4600 miles across the desolate ice seas and the white continent.

His record hop was the kind of operation that Cdr. George R. Kelly takes in stride. It was simply another flight by the world's southernmost airline.

C-130 Hercules, plane that put "Antarctic Airlines" in business, uses jato (jet-assisted takeoff) bottles for lifting heavy load at Byrd Station, Antarctica

Ski-Equipped C-130 is nursed into parking position by arm-waving Navy man at McMurdo Station. Skis are handy on Antarctica's "5000 miles of runways"

Stranded Helicopter awaits engine change on top of 9000-ft. Mount Discovery, Summertime temperature: 20 degrees below zero! Helicopters, single-engine Otters and twin-engine C-47s supplement workhorse C-130s in Antarctica

Antarctic Airlines' regular routes include flights from base at McMurdo to Byrd, Eights, South Pole and Hollett Stations, round trips of up to 2700 miles

Commander Kelly heads the U.S. Navy's Air Development Squadron Six. Called VX-6 for short, it has a monopoly. It does all the flying for Americans and New Zealanders at the world's last geographic frontier. And while it has no competition, it is efficiently run, courageously operated and highly respected - in spite of the fact that its nickname is Kelly's Awful Airline.

In many respects, VX-6 really is an airline. It has almost daily routes of delivery - 1400 round-trip nautical miles from McMurdo's William Field to the South Pole Station, 1600-n.m. round trip between McMurdo and Byrd Stations, and 2700-n.m. from McMurdo to Eights Station.

That's the equivalent of flying out of Houston to Denver, to Tucson and to San Francisco. And there are other irregular, nonscheduled flights in support of the National Science Foundation's research assault at the bottom of the world.

VX-6 is a veritable supply lifeline to these isolated stations. Surface ships led by icebreakers reach McMurdo during the southern summer (December). But the men, fuel, food and equipment can only leave McMurdo via Kelly's aerial outfit.

The Navy flyboys put in grueling hours no civilian pilots' union would stand for. "The average commercial pilot logs 75 hours a month," explains Kelly. "Our pilots usually log 150 hours a month here, sometimes 200." More is demanded from the machines, as well as the men. Where a civilian Gooney Bird (C-47) normally flies at 26,000-pound gross weight, identical VX-6 planes gross 33,000 pounds.

Radar Screen shows one of major landmarks, crevasse field called The Jawbone. Radar is most reliable aid to navigation in South Pole's whiteness

In addition, flying in the Antarctic is flying in the most remote, minimally mapped, hostile land on earth. To state the obvious, it's dangerous. Of the 29 Americans who died on the continent up to 1963, 22 were killed in aircraft accidents.

VX-6 has been flying over the White Continent every season since 1955, when the Navy began its support of our scientific efforts down there. The VX-6 of today, however, is a radically changed outfit. And the degree of change is indicated in its airline-type operation.

There are two reasons for the new look. One is the accumulation of experience under unique flying conditions. The other is a unique airplane, the C-130 Hercules. Built by Lockheed, it is called by Kelly and the other pilots "the airplane that has revolutionized polar flying."

Heavy Cargo is major port of operations in Antarctica. Surface vessels can bring it to shore, but only aircraft can transport it to inland bases

Discarded Parachute serves as windbreak for mechanics. Engine prewarmer (left) pumps warm air inside so mechanics can work safely without gloves

Four planes were put into the field during Deep Freeze '62. It wasn't long before the C-130 became legendary.

The saga of Darbyville helped make the legend. On New Year's Day, 1962, in the brightness of the southern summer evening, a lone C-130 was halfway from McMurdo to Byrd Station when one of its slim propjets began to falter, then quit. The Hercules simply lost a few thousand feet altitude and kept right on going.

Then the second engine sputtered and was feathered. Back in the cavernous body of the transport, Chaplain August Mendonza and some of the crew were saying silent prayers. Up on the flight deck, Marine Maj. Leslie L. Darbyshire and his copilot, Navy Lt. Donald F. Moxley, looked over the ice desert below them with more than a casual eye. They were picking the most likely looking level spots for an emergency landing.

Barehanded Crew does minor maintenance on C-47 engine. Without warmed-up parachute tent, hands would stick to super-cold metal parts of plane

When the third engine began to falter, they decided it was time to go in. By now they were 100 miles from Byrd. During the descent, the large rear door of the scorpion-tailed plane was opened and its 20,000-pound load of steel drums of heating oil was dumped. Darbyshire set up a landing pattern and brought the big aluminum bird smoothly onto the ice.

Another Chore is supplying field sites of scientific expeditions such as those sponsored by National Science Foundation, on the ice cap. This site, located in Pensacola Mountains area, conducts research in polar cold

Bringing the plane down was just one danger that had been passed. The crew and its passengers were now stranded on a plateau of ice 8680 feet thick. They had to survive in an area of the world where temperatures average -18° F. but can dip to -82° F., where the land would provide nothing for survival but snow that could be melted to water.

As soon as it could, a Search-and-Rescue crew took off from McMurdo in a jato-equipped C-47. By the time it reached the downed C-130 it was greeted by a large sign stomped in the snow proclaiming the site "Darbyville."

Panic to Picnic

After they landed, the rescue team expected to be greeted by half-frozen, starving icemen. Instead, they were calmly ushered toward a row of red tents and white snow huts. Inside one of the huts was a delicious smell - stew being cooked on portable stoves, with the smoke carried out by a flue of empty oil cans.

Major Darbyshire and his men had set up a city. He had turned near-tragedy into a survival exercise. He had averted disaster by proving that, with coolness in the face of all that coldness, being downed in the Antarctic could be converted from panic to picnic.

Mechanics from the rescue plane looked over the C-130 for the cause of the engine failures. Their examination pointed to ice contaminating the fuel system.

Four days later, the C-130's engines were alive with power and it was skimming over the ice, rising into the air, and homeward bound.

But there are other dangers on these bottom-of-the-world flights. One is the whiteout - when the horizon and all shadows disappear as cloud cover and white landscape merge into one.

During northern summers, at their Quonset Point, R.I., home base, VX-6 crews practice the whiteout landing procedure. The pilot simply lowers skis and flaps, reduces power and sets up a standard landing glide. Outside all is milky; inside are the instruments, which become his senses. The pilot relies on only one of his own, the feel of the skis touching and the shudder they impart to the plane.

Like any emergency procedure, however, it is never practiced enough. Caught in a real Antarctic whiteout, a pilot felt his C-47 workhorse shudder, so he cut back his engines. But the shudder was due to the plane's stalling - not a few feet off the ice, but at 300 feet. The plane pancaked severely onto the ice. The crew walked away, but left a total wreck behind.

Another C-47 pilot landed more properly in a whiteout, then waited for his air-speed indicator to drop to zero. This would indicate that his plane had completely stopped. After several minutes, however, air speed was still 30 knots.

The pilot asked his crew chief to open the back door and step down to see if he could feel anything solid below them. The chief did, and stepped out. He almost disappeared in five feet of snow on which the plane was resting. It was stopped all right, but headed into a 30-knot wind.

Winter in Antarctica, contrariwise, is a blackout of perpetual night. It has been pierced by a plane only once. A Seabee at McMurdo had fallen and broken his back. He was paralyzed and in need of complete medical treatment. In an 11,000-mile radiotelephone call, McMurdo's doctor, Lt. Thomas Bates, asked Rear Adm. James R. Reedy at the Pentagon for help.

The admiral, who commands all naval support forces on the White Continent, relayed the plea to VX-6. Almost immediately, two C-130s were on their way with a Navy doctor and special surgical equipment. On landing at Christchurch, the pilots scrambled for the operations office to check McMurdo's weather. It couldn't have been worse - a blowing, whistling blizzard with no visibility.

After the planes were refueled, McMurdo weather was checked again. Visibility had lifted to 10 miles. One of the propjets, flown by Lt. Robert V. Mayer, 40, was soon airborne. On board was just enough fuel to come back, should weather close in again.

Lit Up Like Christmas

Luckily, it didn't. "The station was lit up like a Christmas tree," Mayer reported. Oil drums and flares had been set up alongside the ice runway to pierce the blackout and help the Hercules home in.

Wind is always devilish in Antarctica. On one helicopter flight to Cape Crozier, a short hop across Ross Island, the winds at McMurdo station at one end of the island were but 15 m.p.h. But at the Cape, they were an unexpected and howling 100 m.p.h. The slow-flying helicopter was blown past the landing pad and out over the frozen sea. Only with maximum power on the helo's engine, and after eight minutes, was it able to inch back to Crozier.

Both the helicopters and the C-47s, plus a few one-engined Otters, do the special short-haul jobs, like taking scientists and their instruments and equipment out to remote glaciers, mountains and stations. They're perfect for hauling small loads relatively short distances. And they are versatile. The helos, too, are veritable mechanical acrobats. And that's fine for serving the scientists who sometimes have the weirdest ideas.

Take the hair-raising "routine" flight of 30-year-old Lt. James Brandau.

"The other day," blonde-bearded Jim told me, "New Zealanders wanted to put a surveyor's landmark on top of a mountain." He loaded them and their equipment aboard his whirlybird and flew them out to the 2700-foot peak.

"The marker - which was really just three oil drums bolted together - had to be right on the point and there was no place to land. I sidled the aircraft slowly over to the peak until the right front gear touched. Then I hovered there, with the left front gear and the rear wheel hanging in the air."

Hovering requires the engine to be at 80 percent power, so the scientists had to be quick. The helicopter's side door was opened, and they stepped out onto the steep icy peak. They pulled out the steel drums, secured them to the mountain top, and climbed back in. Then the helicopter was off again.

Seals Picked Up

Specialty flying is the helicopter pilot's dish. Early this season, for instance, they literally picked up six Weddell seals from the sea ice and carried them 10 miles back to McMurdo.

Not all flights are rosy. One helicopter flying a field party out of a deep desolate valley carved between sheer cliffs had an engine failure. Lt. G. L. Maaske told me how he set the craft down on Ferrar Glacier 60 miles from McMurdo. He and the two scientists pitched a survival camp and cooked mulligan stew. In six hours an Otter plane circled overhead, dropped crackers and jam, cigars and a magazine.

Then they were picked up and a six-man maintenance party, tools, food, and a replacement engine were left behind. The mechanics worked and slept in the open four days before the helicopter was fixed.

For big loads and long distances, the C-130 is the Kelly Airlines' workhorse. Unlike the older P2V and the C-47, it can take off from unprepared ice without help; jato is rarely used, and only for extra-heavy loads. Supplies are landed now; parachute drops are obsolete.

The C-130 engines, being jets, require no prewarming. The plane carries its own auxiliary power supply for engine starts, in the form of a small jet engine mounted hidden inside the left landing gear well.

That's what Commander Kelly and the other pilots mean when they say the Hercules has revolutionized Antarctic flying. And the tale of Darbyville proved, as one crew member said, "that we have a 5000-mile runway here."

Even with these wonder planes, though, the problem of getting around is a formidable one. There is no network of radio-navigation stations for constant bearing checks. In fact, there are few fixed things upon which to check your position.

Further, the magnetic compass goes crazy and is unreliable near the Pole.

The navigators who fly the regular routes use everything they can. They use celestial navigation, but because there is 24-hour daylight they can use only one star, the sun. Each plane has a radar set and its navigator relies heavily on check points he can pick up for a fix of his position or for determining his ground speed and drift. Established mountain ranges and peaks are reliable; so, too, are giant crevasse fields which have characteristic shapes on radar.

Abandoned crashed planes that poke above the snow drifts are also excellent landmarks, especially for radar because metal reflects these waves best. That's one way newly downed planes are located, too.

Abominable Snow Snake

But there always are unexplained exceptions. Like last November when a C-47 on the way back from Byrd Station began losing oil from one engine-and altitude. After dumping 350 gallons of fuel and 400 pounds of fresh eggs - that left a half-mile yellow streak on the ice - the plane made an emergency landing. A companion C-47 landed beside it, picked up the crew and continued on to McMurdo.

The next day a plane loaded with mechanics flew out to where the downed plane should have been. But they couldn't find it. On their return they reported, scratching their heads, that "apparently white desert Arabs in white robes on white horses simply stole it." Others said that the abominable snow snake had gulped it.

The men who fly Kelly's Awful Airline are full of such stories. But that's a Navy characteristic. So, too, are guts and skill. The scientists who are squeezing facts out of man's last geographical frontier have been successful, in part, because they count on VX-6, and VX-6 stands behind its motto: "You Call, We Haul" - be it on record runs or short heroic hops.

 

 

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