The DC-8 arrived back at base at NASA Armstrong last Tuesday and I flew down to meet it. Standing in the Californian desert sun, watching it land was a big moment – the successful completion of the first part of the mission! As everyone came of the plane there were handshakes and slaps on the back, welcoming everyone back, and some quick team photos by the plane. I was touched that, despite having spent the last month flying nearly every other day and changing time zones at a dizzying pace, so many of my colleagues spared a moment to mention how nice it was to see me again, and check how my ears were recovering after they failed on me in Hawaii.
There was little time for celebration though. I’d spent the hours before the plane arrived getting ready a calibration kit to take out to the plane. Calibrating our instruments means putting particles who’s size and composition we know into the instruments and measuring their response. This enables us to accurately interpret our data. We did these in the lab back at NOAA before the mission, here at Armstrong before we took off, and now we want to do them again to check that nothing has changed in the instrument response.
We’d hoped that the plane would be towed into the hangar for this, but at the last minute this wasn’t possible. We quickly brought out our calibration kit onto the ramp and up onto the plane in situ to get going. Halfway through they were able to pull into the hangar, so we shut everything down as the airplane can’t be powered during this maneuver. We continued in the relative cool of the hangar, Aga, my colleague from NOAA who had just flown the Atlantic half of the route with our instruments, and I working fast together to get everything done, and again very early the next morning.
Meanwhile, the plane was being taken apart around us. Instruments were being dismantled and taken off to ship back to their labs for work before the next part of the mission, seats were being taken out, stacks of gas cylinders taken apart and hauled off.
Even as we were finishing the calibrations we started cutting cable ties and losing what we could on the rack to speed our de-integration. Then as soon as we had taken the final data point we powered off and undid the plumbing, electrical and hardware connections to the plane. Some of the crew came, unbolted our rack from the seat-tracks and lifted it onto skates and then a lift to get it off the plane.
The plane was empty – devoid of instruments, scientists, seats – ready for the next mission, operation Icebridge, to upload and take the plane back up to Alaska to survey polar ice. Back in the lab, we took the instruments out of the rack, and packed everything into boxes and crates to ship back to NOAA in Boulder.
The following day the truck arrived and we loaded all of the Boulder groups’ instruments and supporting material onto it. The truck had to park outside the hangar, so we worked early in the morning and fast to avoid the worse of the heat. There were a handful of scientists up in the truck with a pallet jack moving crates and boxes into position – a little bit like 3D Tetris, only where everything is super heavy. A group of us on the ground lifted boxes onto dollies and wheeled them outside. We then pushed them onto the prongs of a forklift, and Wendy, logistics manager for the DC-8 at Armstrong lifted them up to the people in the truck. It was hot, sweaty work, but we got it done and were able to make our afternoon flight back to Boulder. For the scientists who’d flown the Atlantic half, and those who’d done the gone the whole way round, they’d been away 3 to 5 weeks, and were very happy to come home to their friends and families, along with the luxuries of home cooked food and staying in one place for a little while.