The aviation workforce is dominated by twin otters in Antarctica. Bigger planes like the C17 and C130 ship cargo into the continent, but when it comes to working on the continent, the twin otters are unrivaled. They have a short take off and landing distance and are equipped with both wheels and skis. This allows them to land nearly anywhere on the continent.
Typically twin otters are flown with two pilots, a captain and a copilot. However the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) flies with one pilot, leaving the copilot seat open. This means you get to sit in the copilot seat and FLY THE PLANE.
Mark was the pilot on one of my flights, and he’s a flight instructor when he’s not flying in Antarctica. Mark let me have full control of the plane, so I banked around for a while, images of Top Gun playing in my mind. The view from the cockpit was amazing, providing a vista of the mountains and glaciers of Antarctica.
Looking around the cockpit, I noticed a knob next to Mark’s seat and asked him what it did. Mark said “It’s a trim knob. It’s useful for when an engine goes out.” He then reaches up and says “Ok, hold on…” He pulled a lever and the sound of the right engine dies. We start banking to the right. “Notice how we’re turning right now?” he asked calmly.
“UHH…YES MARK I DO…”
“Ok, push that pedal by your feet.”
“UMM. SURE MARK.” I calmly replied.
“Notice how we’re straightening out now? But you have to put a lot of pressure on the pedal to keep it straight. Imagine if we needed to fly hours with a dead engine. That would be very tiring.”
“…why are we flying with a dead engine for hours?”
Mark ignored my obviously stupid question. “Now if we turn this knob, it trims the rear rudder so we can fly straight with a dead engine and your leg won’t get tired. Now let go of the pedals.” And sure enough we were flying straight.
Mark eventually brought back power to the right engine, and I flew on for the remainder of the trip. We approached our destination, and Mark asked me to bring it down through a clearing in the clouds, making sure to avoid the mountain to my left. I started to wonder if he knew this was my first time flying.
Fortunately he took the controls as we descended below 2000 feet. We banked around and lined up to land on the blue ice runway at Sky Blu. At Sky Blu, the runway leads directly into a mountain, so from the cockpit you see yourself jetting towards a mountain at 80 knots, hoping that you stop before you hit it. Of course Mark is an expert and brought us down with probably a kilometer to spare.