Tragedy on the Ice [Dispatches from Antarctica]

An AS350 Squirrel helicopter, similar to the one which crashed in Antarctica on October 28, is pictured in this file photo provided by Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

An AS350 Squirrel helicopter, similar to the one which crashed in Antarctica on October 28, is pictured in this file photo provided by Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

This is the 27th entry in the Armed with Science series, Dispatches from Antarctica. The series features Air Force Lt. Col. Ed Vaughan’s first-hand experiences on OPERATION: DEEP FREEZE, the Defense Department’s support of National Science Foundation research in Antarctica.

28 Oct, McMurdo Station, Antarctica

[NOTE: I’ve delayed posting this entry. Both because it is appropriate to wait and because I wish I didn’t have to write it. After discussing the matter with our National Science Foundation (NSF) management at McMurdo, and the producers of this Department of Defense blog, I thought it important to move this one in front of the backlog of Dispatches we’ve amassed recently. I’ve provided links below to news outlets in both French and English. I will not attempt to provide the news here, but rather offer a brief glimpse into this horrific event from the vantage point of fellow members of the Antarctic Community.]

Today seemed like an ordinary Thursday. However, for the families, colleagues, and friends of a certain French Antarctic team, this Thursday will be filled with grief. It is anything but ordinary. Today, four members from l’Institut polaire Paul-Emile Victor, in Brest, Brittany, France would tragically perish in a helicopter crash near the French Antarctic research station Dumont d’Urville.

But we didn’t know that until two days later. At the time of the mishap, the focus at McMurdo was very different.

I finished work at 10pm and returned to my quarters for some evening tea. After addressing a noise complaint in one of the nearby dorms, I returned to find an urgent pager message waiting for me. It was just after midnight. The message indicated an overdue helicopter and a request for assistance. I went back in to work.

At McMurdo, unusual events and crises are often handled by the EOC, Emergency Operations Center. The EOC is convened by the NSF Station Manager on an as-needed basis. As the inter-agency government lead for the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), the NSF determines which, if any, of the USAP’s assigned and contracted assets and personnel will be made available to support requests for international support. Other international programs have similar arrangements.

Australian Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) led the international search and recovery effort from Canberra, in response to a request from the French program. RCC sought information from various nations and programs in the region as to what resources, such as ships and aircraft, might be available to assist. The NSF at McMurdo was among those contacted. This process happened very quickly, as all the organizations have checklists and set procedures for the purpose.

In the Air Force, we sometimes use a Crisis Action Team, or CAT, for similar purpose as the EOC. I’d worked in CATs and their inter-service cousins known as JOCs (Joint Operations Centers). I was accustomed to the drill. As the senior Joint Task Force – Support Forces Antarctica (JTF-SFA) member at McMurdo that night, it was my task to participate in the EOC process.

I arrived in the EOC room. The NSF manager led the process. Around the table sat key representatives from all areas of McMurdo operations, referencing checklists, typing on computers, talking on phones. Large screen monitors and maps were on the walls silently providing what information could be collected. Except for the lack of uniforms, this looked and felt like other crisis teams I’ve worked with.

The situation as briefed was that two French helicopters had been operating between the French research vessel l’Astrolabe and the French station, Dumont d’Urville, when severe weather suddenly moved in. One helicopter had landed safely, but the other one was overdue and could not be reached by radio. Australian RCC was leading the international search and recovery.

An important part of maximizing crisis team’s contributions is keeping everyone focused on the art of the possible…on the assigned task. You could sense the urgency and frustration of the team, each of whom wanted to do more than was possible. And though none of us had ever met the French citizens involved, we each felt somehow personally connected to those missing.

But the NSF manager was very clear in articulating our role this night. He explained that McMurdo is responding to a specific request from the Australian RCC. He said we’ll do everything we can to support, but it must be under RCC’s discretion and leadership. That is the best way we can help now.

After the process ran its course, RCC made formal requests for assistance. The NSF directed that a US Air Force C-17, already scheduled to fly from Christchurch to McMurdo that morning, would be involved. Passengers would be rescheduled, and the fuel load would be adjusted, to permit the C-17 to fly over the search area en route to McMurdo.

Knowing weather at the site was still poor, the goal of this over flight was to attempt to make radio contact with anyone at the crash site. To that end, a USAP participant from the Italian program was specially manifested by NSF to provide French-English translation.

Weather remained very bad at the site for many hours. Blizzard conditions were reported in the vicinity of the helicopter’s last known position, at the time crudely determined to be on seasonal sea ice. After several hours overhead with no breaks in the weather, and thus no visual clues, the C-17 proceeded on to McMurdo.

RCC was able to accurately locate the downed helicopter in short order through use of automated distress beacons. According to RCC’s public website, “the technology of distress beacons is so advanced that the location of the boat, aircraft or individual in distress can be calculated to a search area of as little as 110m with a digital 406 MHz beacon, if encoded with GPS.”

On the return trip north from McMurdo to Christchurch, the C-17 again spent time circling the location of the distress beacon, this time rendezvousing with an Australian AP-3C Orion surveillance aircraft. Through breaks in the weather, the P3 was able to reach an altitude below the cloud ceiling and spot wreckage. The report from the P-3 crew was that the crash scene appeared to be “unsurvivable”.

The following day (Saturday), the Australian RCC requested NSF provide a USAP LC-130 to assist the remaining French helicopter with recovery. NSF manifested a USAP participant from the CNES-led (French Space Agency) Concordiasi Project to provide translation for this flight.

The LC-130 orbited overhead the crash scene for four hours providing weather watch and communications relay for the French recovery effort. Following that mission the Australian RCC contacted NSF to relay that the emergency response event was complete and no further assistance would be required.

November 4, 2010, McMurdo Station, Antarctica

[youtube yJ0v6FJaMsM nolink]
Following the announcement last Saturday that all four members of the missing French helicopter team had tragically lost their lives, there was a sense of profound sadness around McMurdo. Antarctica is a community like no other. The loss of any members of this community, even people not directly associated with our program, impacted us all.

McMurdo’s Senior NSF Representative, Mr. George Blaisdell, likely considered this when he asked the chaplains to plan a simple and respectful memorial service here. The memorial service was held at the McMurdo community chapel this evening.

McMurdo community chaplain, Laura Adelia, opened with prayers and words of support. Community members solemnly shared thoughts, poems, songs, and paintings in tribute. Some read spiritual passages in French and others in English. Hundreds of McMurdo residents turned out to sign a letter of sympathy and support, written in both languages. This letter is to be sent to the French participants who must carry on their research at Dumont d’Urville.

Most of all, the families and loved ones of those French citizens who passed were paramount in the hearts of the McMurdo community. The above video of senior NSF Representative George Blaisdell speaking at the memorial, aptly expresses the community’s feelings. The below US Antarctic Program photos from the service are courtesy of Laura Adelia.

French Language

TF1 News

Le Monde

English Language


French 24

A poem offered in tribute by the former Deputy Commander, Joint Task Force – Support Forces Antarctica, Col Ron Smith. Copyright, 2010, Ronnie J Smith.


I dreamed I was in the arms
of an ocean,
remembering me
on an infinite shore,
where shells of my self
washed away,
traces in the sands of my self
washed away,
lapping memories
from every color of the sun,
lives I have been
now as foam,
deeds and loves
that have been,
like clouds of rain
returning the sky,
emptying into me,

Yet wading,
ever and buoyantly wading,
that my surfing soul
might ascend,
wind-dancing to God
upon eternal waves of light.

Sign up for Armed with Science email alerts!