Treena Nadeau says, “I had wanted to go to Antarctica since I was a little girl.”
As a technical sergeant and munitions manager from the 101st Air Refueling Wing of the Maine Air National Guard in Bangor, Nadeau recently fulfilled that childhood dream and spent two weeks in Antarctica.
The 38-year-old, who lives with her husband, Capt. Todd Nadeau, in Lake View Plantation, is one of just three people in the country with the certification necessary to “manage” certain types of fuel cells, a certification she obtained a couple of years ago in preparation for the “Fat Albert” type of plane that came to Bangor for an air show.
It is that certification that qualified her for the trip to Antarctica. Nadeau left the day after Christmas, taking commercial flights to Christchurch, New Zealand.
Once there, she was issued her extreme cold-weather gear, and waited for the military plane to take her south. It was a cramped flight down from New Zealand to Antarctica, Nadeau said. She sat in seats of webbing, shoulder to shoulder and directly across – meaning knee to knee – from other passengers.
The distance from Christchurch to the McMurdo Sound base is 2,250 miles. After nine hours and
40 minutes in the air, Nadeau stepped off the plane and described what she saw as “something
from a science fiction movie.”
“Everything is clean, pristine, white. No animals, plants,” she said. Also, since it was summer there, the sun never set. It was still daylight when the plane touched down at 12:30 a.m.
Nadeau rode a bus for an hour to get to the base, which consists of a central core of main buildings – work, recreation areas – with sleeping quarters at the periphery.
During the summer season from October to February, some 1,100 people – military, scientists and members of the service community – live and work at McMurdo. The population dwindles to 125 people when the months of darkness descend.
Nadeau described the people she met as “the best part of the trip. They remain incredibly happy. They love it there. They love nature. They are incredibly accommodating.”
While stationed at McMurdo, Nadeau journeyed to the South Pole, 838 miles from the base. The jets that fly there use skis to assist them in takeoff and landing, and rocket motors when necessary.
Because of the 24-hour daylight, and the white glare of the snow, it was difficult to see the horizon.
Nadeau described the South Pole as “surreal, because while you are at the bottom of the Earth, you are actually at an altitude of 9,300 feet. My eyelashes and nose hairs froze, and when I tapped one of my fingernails, it broke off.”
The South Pole itself is actually in a different location every year. It sits on ice 9,000 feet thick, but the ice flows and moves, so the pole moves, too. It was neat, she said, to put her hand on the pole and walk around it saying, “I’m going around the world.”
Back at McMurdo, the base sits at sea level, and in the Antarctic summer it can be mild. During the two weeks Nadeau was there, she often worked outside in regular clothes.
Not just any plane can go to the Antarctic – these are specifically outfitted jet-assisted takeoff planes, usually LC-130s, equipped with skis rather than landing wheels. The rocket motors with specialized fuel cells help the planes lift off using a much shorter “runway” than they otherwise would need.
These are considered munitions, and they have to be disposed of properly. Nadeau checks to see whether the fuel in each used motor burned cleanly, with no leftover solid propellant in the fuel cell. If so, it can be disposed of as scrap metal and removed from the base by ship.
If the burn is unclean, with leftover propellant, the motor must be transported in a more expensive manner – as live munitions on a plane, at the end of the Antarctic summer in February with no passengers onboard. Or, the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit can come in to detonate the material.
The strict requirements are part of a treaty involving any of the organizations that work in the Antarctic, a treaty stating that no waste will remain on the continent. Waste is separated in specific trash containers – a used tissue discarded differently from pens or apple cores – and taken off the continent at the end of the season.
Two weeks was a long enough visit, said Nadeau, who has received many awards in the military, including the 2000 Maine Air National Guard Outstanding Airman of the Year, noncommissioned officer category.
But even though she was glad to be heading home to Maine, she said she would go again – in a heartbeat.
During her stay, something unexpected happened. On arrival in Antarctica, Nadeau was tired and decided to wait to pick up her bags and extreme-weather gear in the morning. On her way to pick up her belongings, she saw a familiar face.
It was Brenda Hall, a University of Maine professor who taught a course in quaternary and geological sciences Nadeau had taken a few years ago at Husson College in Bangor.
It proved for Tech. Sgt. Treena Nadeau that it really is a small world after all.