We are sitting in the small plane. The seats are narrow and covered in coarse grey fabric. The runaway is an incline on the snow on an elevated glacier near Dumont D’Urville’s French base, in the Adelie Land, East Antarctica.
It is December 2007 and one of my biggest dreams in life has just come true. After years of work and wait, I’m finally in Antarctica. The previous day we jumped over the snow of the continent — for me it was the very first time — and we slept in a small base. Today, French fellas drove us uphill, to the runaway. From here we are looking at an astonishing panorama.
As I said, now we are inside the plane and we are waiting for take off. Destination Dome C, inland Antarctica, location of the French-Italian base, Concordia. The base where – I didn’t know at that time yet – I was going to live for six months of my life, over three different journeys to the White Continent.
The pilot turns his affable face toward us. He is heavy-set, he has a beard and he is Canadian. He says something like: “The flight will last 4 to 5 hours. If in the cabin it is too warm or too cold, there isn’t much we can do about it, but I’d like to know anyway”. He says that in English and Italian. Because you know, this is a Canadian airplane owned by a Canadian company which during the summer southern season is used to provide logistic support to the Italian and French Antarctic programs, almost every year, since many years. That’s why there is also an Italian flag painted on it, and that’s why the nice, heavy-set pilot speaks Italian.
We take off; we fly for hours over the white. Plateau’s altitude slowly increases, so when we come close to the surface the pilot puts is big hand up and pushes the throttle in order to gain altitude. We reach Dome C, and that is another dream coming true, but it isn’t really very important, since this article is not about me. You may have got it now. It is about the pilot.
We go through first logistic duties, like being shown our bed, receiving information about safety, and so on. All of this is done while suffering from the first symptoms of high-altitude sickness. It is with my mind blurred by the Sickness that I reach the cafeteria for dinner. I may have been quite in a daze that night, but, you know it was one of those days when a dream… etcetera; therefore I have vivid memories. The Canadian pilot is next to me in line for food and we introduce each other. After telling him my name, he says, “I’m Bob”, with an open “o”, like Yankees and Canadians pronounce it.
Afterwards we flew a lot of times with Bob. In fact he is the pilot I flew most with in Antarctica.
He and his colleagues usually leave Alberta in the fall, cross the whole American continent down to Tierra del Fuego, then to the Antarctic Peninsula, South Pole, then comes the jump to the Italian and French bases, which are located on the other side of the continent with respect to America and Antarctic Peninsula. He told me that since they land on so many Latin American countries, his passport gets full of stamps in a short time. He said that once he had flown over both the Arctic and the Antarctic in the same month.
My last flight before saying farewell to the White Continent in 2010 was with him as well. He flew us from Dome C to Terra Nova Bay, on the coast, where lies an Italian base.
It was during a flight from South Pole to Terra Nova Bay four days ago that Bob’s plane went missing. Together with him is a 25 years-old co-pilot from Calgary, and the airplane engineer.
During the three days in which the rescue team from New Zealand was prevented from reaching the site by inclement weather, we have hoped. The plane is equipped with a tent and food for five days.
Yesterday, although wind was blowing still too strongly to land, clouds have cleared so that the New Zealanders could see something from above.
They spotted the plane at an altitude of almost 4,000 meters above sea level. It shows signs of heavy crash and they say there is no possibility for the crew to have survived such a crash.
What makes me furious is the fact that if something like that happened with one of the most experienced Antarctic pilots onboard, then it was unavoidable.
That’s simply not fair.
I inadvertently deleted all the emails from my Antarctic missions long ago, but I remember what one of them said. It gets right to the point on explaining why what happened is so shocking. It was sent during southern summer 2008-2009. Bob couldn’t come that year since he had to stay close to his family. He wrote an email to us in Italian, saying that he was very sorry about not coming since we were his extended family.