Ask the pilot

Is there anything worse than mile-high Finnish renditions of the Violent Femmes? And, flying on thin ice in Antarctica.

Published October 15, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

Last month, curious about this column's international appeal, I asked my overseas readers to identify themselves. Letters have since shot back from more than 55 nations -- a tally that now includes Gabon, Mozambique and Saudi Arabia. For an updated look at Ask the Pilot's imperial progress, click here.

Those who visited previously will see that I've changed the map. This one is more attractive and easier to read. Alas, the projection still leaves Greenland oversized, though not as grotesquely as on the Mercator scale I demonstrated last week.

Remind me, if you will, never to talk about map projections again. As I thought might happen, my limited knowledge of the topic left me open to dissertations on cartographic arcana. Reader Craig DeForest was one of many to chime in:

"You mentioned the Mercator projection," writes DeForest, "which reminds me of my favorite, little-known word in the English language: loxodrome. Loxodromic curves follow so-called rhumb lines (paths of constant angle to the meridians), which are complex spirals in three dimensions. But being pilots, you guys already know this stuff."

Of course we do. But just to be sure, I asked a friend who flies transpacific routes on the 747 what he knows about loxodromes and spirals in three dimensions. He said he hasn't taken or seen any since that Pink Floyd concert in '79.

Anyway, OK, the idea of a columnist hyping the extent of his own readership might seem the apex of self-indulgence, and I was planning to drop this entire discussion. But before I do, a couple of interesting things:

First, what's the deal with Finland? My column seems to be inordinately popular there, for reasons I can't explain. Asking around, I'm told the Finns are among the planet's most Internet savvy populations, but still, five letters in less than a week? Certain places I take for granted. I receive semi-frequent mail from Australia, as an example. The Aussies speak English and have a rich aviation history. Finland I'm not so sure of.

What few things I know about Finland don't explain the mystery. For instance, I know the Finns hate being called Scandinavian. That's because they're not. The Finnish language, unlike Swedish or Norwegian or Danish, branches from the same family of tongues -- Finno-Ugrian -- that claims Hungarian.

Thus you can think of the Finns, maybe, as an alienated, dislocated community of Polar Huns. I'm also told the summertime mosquitoes in Lapland are the world's most voracious.

Possibly for these reasons, enormous groups of young Finns routinely flee their homeland. At least for the weekend. They proceed via ferry, across the gulf from Helsinki to St. Petersburg, where they spend the next three days gorging on cheap Russian liquor. Then, in what must be a truly grotesque scene of en-masse hangover and seasickness, they catch the ferry home again. St. Petersburg as a sort of Baltic Cancun.

Maybe things have changed, but that's how it was in February 1986, when I spent five days in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was still called) at the Pribaltiskaya Hotel. What the Pribaltiskaya lacked in luxuries it made up for with a well-stocked bar and a tolerance for obnoxious revelry. The boat from Helsinki arrived on Friday afternoon, and by 8 p.m. hundreds of Finns were collapsed into unconscious pig-piles in the stairwells, elevators and hallways. Piles of drunken bodies were giving off fumes like gasoline-soaked firewood. Those still ambulatory were climbing the flagpoles and jumping head-first into the laundry chutes.

All right, in fairness I'll add that groups of partying Swedish kids were up to much the same thing. I quickly lost track of which drunken posses were the Finns and which were the Swedes.

The Swedes, it turns out, became easier to spot because many of them were weeping. Only hours earlier, Sweden's beloved prime minister, Olof Palme, had been assassinated in Stockholm. As details of the killing trickled in, distraught teenagers huddled around each other in the hotel restaurant, downing bottle after bottle of $3 champagne; pouring vodka onto the tables and slapping the puddles with their hands.

Finnair, to politely change the subject, is Finland's national airline. Founded in 1923, it operates a 60-strong fleet as far as Bangkok, Shanghai and Hong Kong. In fact it was Finnair that flew me from New York to Russia back in '86, by way of Helsinki. The airline has a good reputation and is popular for its routes to Eastern Europe. Then again, it also calls itself "the official airline of Santa Claus" and is known for cramming 10-abreast seating into its MD-11s instead of the standard nine.

In '86 it was an old DC-10, predecessor of the MD-11, and it too had the 10-abreast squeeze. Then we suffered a flat tire during a fuel stop in Montreal.

Even more disturbing than the three-hour delay and deep vein thrombosis, however, was the whacked-out man sitting behind me. This young, disheveled, and very inebriated Finn insisted on singing, full voice, all the way across the Atlantic.

First it was Grace Jones, whose songs are intolerable in any form, let alone in a Finno-Ugrian accent at 2 in the morning. This was followed by the entire Violent Femmes first album, a heretofore terrific record that I could never again listen to without shuddering, thanks to the demented Finn's drooling renditions of "Blister in the Sun" and "Please Do Not Go."

On the return I spent a snowy afternoon in Helsinki, where the highlight was finding a pizza place. Finland is known for pizza about as much as it's known for coconuts, but nothing tasted better after a week and a half of Soviet food.

Now let's swing south. Way south.

I've been happy enough to boast that my readership now extends "to all six continents," callously leaving out, as many people do, that ice-covered seventh one. This wasn't an issue until just a couple of days ago, when, to my astonishment, along came a letter from the South Pole.

I'd like you to meet Henry Malmgren. Malmgren pushes our little global village, quite literally, to the ends of the earth. If you're wondering how researchers in Antarctica spend their leisure time, at least one of them logs into

Malmgren, whose off-season home is Austin, Texas, has been stationed at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station since early this year, part of a team of 75. "Our location is pretty easy to find," he explains. "Just go south until you start going north again." Malmgren works for Raytheon Polar Services, which currently holds a contract from the National Science Foundation. As network engineer, it's his duty to keep the computers running and maintain an Internet connection back to the States.

One often hears of Antarctic research facilities, but I wonder what kind of research, exactly, is going on down there. I mean, how many glacial core samples do scientists need? Especially when you can hardly step outside for half the year. The South Pole winter has just ended, providing Malmgren and his crew some sorely needed twilight after four months of total darkness.

"We focus mainly on astronomy, atmospheric science and seismology," he says. "The atmosphere here is extremely dry and stable, which means excellent conditions for astronomers."

Malmgren's outpost receives up to 350 support flights every year. Because the snow surface isn't strong enough to support wheeled aircraft, the planes are equipped with skis. The standard is a specialized C-130 Hercules flown by the Air National Guard, or sometimes a Twin Otter. The Guard's 109th Airlift Wing, out of Scotia, N.Y., is the dedicated supplier of the U.S. Antarctic program. Missions are usually staged via Christchurch, New Zealand.

A third of these flights carry nothing but fuel for the Amundsen-Scott facility. The rest, we assume, carry salt pork and dirty magazines, before returning to America with glacial core samples and penguin-bone scrimshaw.

Excepting medical evacuations, the flying season runs from October to February, in other words the Antarctic summer, when the climate is less extreme. This winter's lowest temperature reached -107 degrees F (-77 C).

"Right now we're in the process of building the new runway," says Malmgren. "It's a tough job and takes about six days of grooming for the C-130 to land. About three days into it we had a huge storm that wiped out all our efforts."

All flights to Amundsen-Scott transit through the U.S. base at McMurdo, about 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) away on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. That's a three-hour trip by plane, and Malmgren describes the view as "one of the most amazing things I've ever seen." McMurdo is the logistics hub for most of the continent, and has three separate airfields. One is made of compacted snow, suitable only for skis. Two others are flat stretches of sea ice, expansive enough for heavy jet transports like the C-17 and C-141, but usable only for a month or two, until the surface begins to soften.

From McMurdo, C-130s and Twin Otters ferry provisions to various temporary camps, to permanent setups like Amundsen-Scott, and occasionally to foreign bases like Russia's Vostok, or the Italian-French station called Dome-C.

"We also get the occasional tourist flight," adds Malmgren.

Indeed. Unbeknownst to many, one of the worst-ever airplane disasters was the crash of Air New Zealand Flight 901, an Antarctic sightseeing charter, in 1979. The exact chain of mistakes -- and the legacy of controversies that ensued -- is a thesis-length article for another time, but the crew of the DC-10 became disoriented after a navigational waypoint discrepancy. The jet was drawn off course and collided with the 12,000-foot Mt. Erebus.

Air New Zealand hadn't suffered a fatality in almost 40 years of operations, and the carrier's Antarctic overflights were very popular. Well-known adventurers and explorers would ride along as tour guides. Immediately after the crash in '79, rumors circulated that New Zealand's most famous citizen, Sir Edmund Hillary, had been guest speaker on the doomed excursion. This turned out not to be the case, but a colleague of Hillary's -- the polar explorer Peter Mulgrew -- and 256 others were killed. For a glimpse of the exact DC-10 involved in the accident, click here.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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