Making the Grade: Kinser Elementary School [Dispatches from Antarctica]

Kinser Elementary School: Home of the ClipperThis is the 40th 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.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been asking elementary and high school students to submit their top questions about life in Antarctica — the coldest, windiest, and driest place on Earth.

We’ve heard from Ms. Vogt’s class at Arnold Elementary School in Arnold, MD, and two schools from the Department of Defense Education Activity (DODEA), Guam High School and Osan American Elementary in South Korea.

Today is our final Q&A, and I’m pleased to answer some very interesting questions from students at DODEA’s Kinser Elementary School in Okinawa, Japan. Thanks again for giving me the opportunity help you learn more about Antarctica.

Please feel free to let us know what you think in the comment section.

Logan: How did you get your job?

Lt. Col. Vaughan: Hi Logan. I spent many years in the Air Force as an officer and a pilot before applying to work in my current job. I was fortunate that a selection board composed of three senior officers selected me based on my background, which is a combination of aviation, science, and management.

Some other background required for this position includes a college degree and experience with deployed operations. For the college degree, I studied engineering, but I think it’s important to choose a field in which you have a personal interest. Learn the basics, but then have fun taking your education to the next level.

I’ve known excellent pilots with degrees in history, English, business and other subjects. However, degrees in science, technology, engineering, or math, the STEM subject areas, seem to open the most doors in my career field right now.

Elonzo: Have you seen the South Pole?

Lt. Col. Vaughan: Yes Elonzo. I’ve visited the South Pole many times in my previous job an LC-130 ski-plane navigator and then pilot. There are actually a couple of different South Poles. There is the geographic South Pole at the very bottom of the world. The exact location is marked each year by the US Geologic Survey medallion. Very close to that spot is the ceremonial South Pole. That is place where all the flags of the Antarctic Treaty Nations are set up for photographic opportunities. Other South Poles include the magnetic, geo-magnetic, and the pole of inaccessibility.

On Armed with Science, we previously featured Maj (Dr.) Maria Angles, at the time a member of 13th Air Force at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam, Hawaii, and the Validating Flight Surgeon for Pacific Air Forces. Here is a great picture of her at the South Pole:


Miwa: Why did you choose to go to Antarctica?

Lt. Col. Vaughan: Dear Miwa, I chose to go to Antarctica to be part of the US Antarctic Program. I believe the US Antarctic Program is conducting important scientific research that will benefit all of humanity. The United States is a leader in this area and works very closely with scientists from all over the world.

Dr. Pauline Yu is one of these rockstar scientists. She is studying sea urchins in Antarctica. Check out this interview to learn more:

Brooke: Do you miss your family?

Lt. Col. Vaughan: Yes Brooke. I miss my family very much. My wife and daughter send me photos and I send them photos and video clips. Aside from phone calls, we use social networking websites to share information and keep in touch until I can come home.

Garrett: How does a plane land on the ice?

Lt. Col. Vaughan: Well Garrett, there are three ways. The US Antarctic Program helicopters land on the ice using the skids on the bottom of the helo. This is a lot like other helicopters in other areas. The main difference is that the helicopter skids used in Antarctica are often taller than normal helos, allowing for them to sink into soft snow a bit.

Fixed wing airplanes like the C-17 land on wheels. But in order for them to do that, lots of people are involved in compacting the snow on top of the ice to make the landing surface smooth are hard. When they are finished preparing the ice runway, it is almost as hard as concrete.

The final way that airplanes like LC-130 Skibird, DC-3 Baslers, and Twin Otters land on the snow and ice is using skis. These airplanes have snow skis attached to the bottom of the aircraft and when they land, they literally ski in. It is very cool to watch. Check out the video here.

Here is a great video showing how DC-3 Baslers land at McMurdo station on skis. You can learn more about Baslers by reading this blog post.

Kathiana: Have you ever been in a dangerous situation?

Lt. Col. Vaughan: Dear Kathiana, unfortunately we sometimes find ourselves in dangerous situations, particularly when it comes to bad weather. For the operations in Antarctica, however, we spend a lot of time and effort trying to figure out ways to get our job done without having to be in dangerous situations. We call this risk management, and anyone can do it.

For example, if you wanted to play outside, but you knew that the temperature outside was pretty cold and the wind was gusty, you could reduce the chance of danger of couple of ways. First, you could decide to stay inside. But that’s not any fun and doesn’t get you outside to play. So then you might decide to wear a sweater to keep yourself warm and a windbreaker to help reduce the effect of the wind. You might add a hat to keep your head warm and even consider gloves if your hands were cold.

Antarctica is similar. We look at the conditions and make adjustments to reduce the danger. Sometimes, though, the conditions are so bad, we just stay inside and wait for a better day.

Speaking of danger, ur airfield operations manager, Gary Cardullo, and his team recently discovered a crack about 2,500 feet down the seasonal ice runway. The crack was about a foot across and 50-60 feet long, reducing the usable length of the ice runway. I made this video so you could see how his team went about fixing the crack:

Jalen: Do you have any regrets about going to Antarctica?

Lt. Col. Vaughan: Jalen, that is a very good question. I had not thought about this before. I guess the answer is no. I don’t regret doing my job here. While I miss my family, I know they understand the importance of our work here and support it. Also, we’ve planned some fun time off together when I come back.

Colby: We learned about bubbles today. Is it possible to freeze a bubble in Antarctica?

Lt. Col. Vaughan: Yes, but maybe not in the same form you’re used to seeing. Freezing bubbles is very important in Antarctica. There are very small micro-bubbles that contain elements of the atmosphere. These bubbles form on the surface of the ice constantly. Some of these bubbles were frozen into the ice many hundreds and even thousands of years ago. Scientists drill deep into the ice and extract ice cores containing these tiny bubbles. By analyzing the content of the ancient bubbles, scientists are able to determine how the atmosphere has changed over time.

Serena: What do you eat to keep your energy up?

Lt. Col. Vaughan: Serena, we’re lucky at McMurdo Station to have people who are excellent cooks that understand nutrition. I’ve found that eating a balanced meal helps me the most. When I expect to outside in the cold for longer periods during the day, I will sometimes eat more lean protein, such as grilled fish or chicken and add a little extra rice or potatoes. That’s not a scientific answer, just my preference.

Also, to avoid dehydration, many people here drink caffeine-free herbal teas as a warm beverage, instead of coffee, which can dry us out. I have a large canteen that I fill with this tea to carry around with me. If I forget to drink it, after a couple hours outside, my hot tea turns to iced tea!

Here is a video all about the cuisine we enjoy in Antarctica courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Jabs, Culinary Manager for all of US Antarctic Program:

Dylan: Have you gotten frost bit?

Lt. Col. Vaughan: Luckily, no, Dylan. There’s a condition called frost nip, which is condition not as serious as frost bite, where the skin is almost frozen to cause damage, but not there yet. I’ve had frost nip on my ears and the tips of my fingers. I’ve seen other people with frost bite and it is very bad.

The tissue is actually damaged and can lead to serious consequences. My old friend, Mr. Jerry Marty, who led the construction of the new South Pole Station has had frost bite on his nose and ears in the past. So every time he gets in a very cold situation, the areas that had been frost bitten change color and look different. This helps remind him to keep warm and reminds the rest of us to be careful.

As you can see, researchers out in the field need to bundle up! (Photo courtesy Jean Pennycook,

Penguins walking near a crack in the sea ice. (Courtesy Jean Pennycook,

Serena: Have you ever had to eat cold food?

Lt. Col. Vaughan: Dear Serena, I think you’re asking about food that should have been hot, but because we’re in Antarctica, it became cold. I’ve only had to eat cold food like that when I’ve been flying and we forgot to warm up the food, or when I’ve been outside for a long time and didn’t have anywhere to warm up the food. Normally, these will be things like left over fried chicken, sandwiches, and drinks. One time I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich wrapped in plastic in my jacket pocket. I meant to eat it right away, but got distracted and forgot. After a couple hours outside, I reached into my pocket and found what I can only describe as a PBJ-cicle. I decided to eat it anyway.

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