This Old Runway And Other Polar Tales
Repairs by 'Mr. Goodwrench' of the Arctic
SHEBA ICE STATION, ARCTIC OCEAN — John Bitters revs up his snowmobile, then climbs aboard for a trip to "SHEBA International Airport" to check on his runway repair job.
Six days earlier, the ice airstrip developed a crack that ultimately widened to 27 feet. Now, the runway is beginning to heal, thanks to hard work, freezing temperatures, and a principle discovered by an ancient Greek scientist named Archimedes.
Fixing runways and building new ones are among many tasks that fall to a man known throughout the ice station simply as "Jumper." His business card reads "assistant field manager/field engineer" for the University of Washington's Polar Science Center. In practice, he's a cross between an expedition scout and Mr. Goodwrench.
Along with SHEBA chief scientist Don Perovich, Jumper selected the ice floe that the expedition will call home for 13 months. He built and grooms the runways, which must be kept clear for emergencies, as well as for routine resupply flights. He conducts periodic trips around the ice station's perimeter looking for polar-bear tracks or signs that the ice may be breaking up. And he, along with Dean Stewart, who focuses on in-camp support, will literally ride shotgun with the small staff of technicians who will tend the ice station's in-camp and remote science gear throughout the winter.
Jumper's nickname comes from the more than 3,000 parachute jumps he's made - first with New Zealand's counterpart to the US Army's Special Forces, and later during polar projects for the US Navy. Half the jumps have been in cold polar regions, where he's parachuted onto ice floes or ice islands to establish runways for the aircraft that would bring in the rest of an expedition. During that time, he earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first man to parachute to both poles.
SINCE 1972 and his first polar assignment at the Scott Station in Antarctica, a posting that lasted two years, he's been helping run logistics at military and civilian polar camps.
Standing by the edge of the "lead," or crack, at SHEBA International's runway, he gives a brief recipe for airstrip repair.
"First I let the water in the lead freeze up a bit, then I built that snow bridge across it, broke up the ice blocks by hand, and built those snow berms on each side of the runway," Jumper says.
Standing on the snow bridge, he describes how he uses a gas-powered ice drill to reach the seawater beneath. The bit then acts like an Archimedes screw, pulling water up through the hole and onto the ice. Layer by layer, Jumper keeps flooding the lead between the berms, letting the water freeze until the layers are even with the top of the ice floe.
In the unlikely event that the repair doesn't hold, Jumper has put in a back-up runway at another site and, just for good measure, has marked out an additional landing strip.
Since the crew here lives aboard an icebreaker, that frees Jumper from having to be alert to the usual risks associated with Arctic missions, such as ice breaking up underneath your experiment hut or dormitory tent in the middle of the night.
Of course, sometimes those risks are man-made.
Jumper, always ready with an "I remember one camp where ... " story, recalls an ice-research expedition in 1975 and '76 during which he and his Norwegian counterpart "got bored. So we decided to add a cold-water pool just outside a sauna we'd had airlifted in from a previous camp. We hacked out a hole in the ice eight feet on a side and five feet deep. Looked just like a Roman tub. We stood on a plank over the pool, took a drill, and began drilling through the tub bottom to flood it."
"What we hadn't counted on was the weight of the camp, the fuel drums, and months of snow drifts depressing the ice under the camp," he continues. "When we broke through the bottom, water burst through the hole. It looked like Moby Dick blowin' his spout. Water poured into the camp, buildings started to float."
With the understatement of an Arctic Crocodile Dundee, he adds, "It caused quite a stir."