I just stumbled over a detailed media report about the Russian Akademik Shokalskiy that recently had to be rescued out of Antarctica’s sea ice, and have been reminded about our excursion to the continent.
Although I do agree that a lot went wrong on their expedition, and human failures played an important role, it has also be admitted that you simply can’t change the A-factor and you need to adapt to it as much as possible.
The A-factor simply stands for the Antarctic-factor and is a common saying under Antarctic expeditioners as the climate is so unpredictable and weather conditions can change quickly.
We could not undertake our research at all during our entire stay, as the weather didn’t stand in our favour. Based at Mawson the weather had to be good at Davis for the aircraft to take off, good in Mawson to pick us up and good at Richardson Lake, our final destination. Usually two of the three locations had good weather but never all of them. Admittedly, having a good weather window lining up at all three locations needed a fair bit of luck, which we didn’t have.
However, in general the entire season wasn’t a good one for the Australian Antarctic program, with the first voyage already delayed by over 3 weeks due to heavy sea ice conditions. While we got flown out straight to Mawson the Aurora undertook resupply of Davis station before heading back to Hobart, just to get trapped once again for another 12 days. Yet, with enough food supply aboard, the Aurora held out until sea ice conditions changed and she could start her way back to Hobart.
While the Aurora remained in the ice, not moving back or forth, we were stuck at Mawson station, being prepared every morning for the (un)likely event of flying into the field. It never happened.
As the time of our stay came to an end, the uncertainty as to whether we were flying, this time to Davis station, remained. Once again we had to be prepared to leave at a moments notice, mostly just to hear that we had another day at the station.
The day we finally arrived in Davis was a distressing time as we received the news shortly after, that one of our helicopters crashed. Fortunately, and due to the incredible work of pilots, doctors and rescue specialists all the survivors were rescued and safely brought to Hobart. All left hospital within one week.
For the remaining expeditioners these circumstances meant the end of the season. With only one helicopter, aviation cannot be operated once the sea ice runway cannot be used anymore.
Just before the runway had to be closed for the rest of the season, we had been flown out to Casey Station to board the Airbus at the Wilkes Runway and return to Hobart. At our return we saw the Aurora taking off to start the second/third (now combined) voyage and resupply Macquarie Island and Casey Station.
During the resupply the unforseen call came and the Aurora had to interrupt resupply to rescue the Akademik Shokalskiy. The rescue mission delayed the missions of all three rescue ships and cost the Australian program another 2 weeks. Now the Aurora is meant to head out for her last voyage to the continent to resupply Mawson station and to pick up expeditioners from all three stations, this time hopefully without the A-factor.