More delays, and a pseudo-defense of USAP.

US Air National Guard C-17 on the ice runway in McMurdo Sound.

Many of you are aware that ANSMET’s long relationship with USAP has been dynamic, lively, spirited, and several other euphemisms for occasionally difficult.  But in spite of the rare moment of conflict,   I have tremendous respect for the organization as a whole and after 30+ years of working with them,  I’m aware of just how complex some of the challenges they face can be in a management sense.   Take the current situation:  McMurdo’s summer season is ending, and one plane needing repairs is causing significant trouble (at least for the time being), delaying the journey of people north to Christchurch.    Here’s the situation as explained by the NSF Rep. in McMurdo (relayed via email by John Schutt)…..

From: MCM-NSF-ScienceRepresentative
Date: Mon, Feb 3, 2020 at 12:10 PM
Subject: Update on redeployment flight scheduling

Hello all –

I wanted to reach out to you to let you know the status of flights off continent. As you are aware, when the C17 arrived on Saturday, 1 FEB, a mechanical problem was discovered. After much work, it was determined that the issue was serious enough that the outbound flight (ACH021) needed to be cancelled. Currently, the aircraft remains in McMurdo awaiting repairs that will allow it to return to Christchurch.  When it does depart it cannot take passengers or cargo, and once in Christchurch it will require additional repairs before it can be returned to passenger service. We hope that the plane can depart this evening, but we do not know how long the additional repairs will take, or when it will again be available.

Following the cancellation of Saturday’s flight, one C-130 flight was able to take a few passengers with critical needs back to Christchurch. That left 81 passengers from the original 31 JAN flight waiting to redeploy. It is our hope that all 81 passengers will fit on 2 LC130’s flights. However, the exact number of passengers that can fit on each flight will all depend on how much weight the LC130’s can carry, and this is based on winds between McMurdo and Christchurch.  

We had scheduled 2 LC130 flights to carry these passengers north today. Unfortunately, both the north and southbound flights scheduled for today had to be cancelled due to strong turbulence just south of New Zealand. The passengers that are currently on GCH027, and who bag dragged last night and are now scheduled to depart tomorrow, 4 FEB (weather etc permitting). The passengers that are currently on GCH028 are scheduled to bag drag tonight and depart late tomorrow, 4 FEB. Passenger prioritization has already been set on those two flights and will not be changed (i.e. no one from GCH028 will be moved to GCH027).

For passengers that were scheduled on the 3 FEB (ACH022) flight please know that we will begin the priority list as soon as the 31 JAN passengers have been cleared. If you have an urgent need to be back home as soon as possible, please do let us know, and we will consider that as we build the prioritization list.

Future flights will be determined throughout the week, and will reflect aircraft availability, operational requirements, and weather. This is a very dynamic situation, and I will send out regular updates as we receive information. 

Thank you for your patience as we work to clear the flight back log as fast as we can.

It would be really easy right now to summon up a little outrage and say  “Really?  You couldn’t build in any margin for this, or plan for this, or maybe find another C-17 or something?”    Unfortunately, the answer is “No,  we really can’t”, and here’s why.

Government programs like USAP  require complex coordination of priorities that include science, policy, politics and international relations.  As a result there are literally thousands of watchdogs scrutinizing everything that happens within USAP, whether we’re talking about millions of dollars for the rebuilding of McMurdo or a single image posted to internet by a McMurdo cook.  There’s nothing those watchdogs pay more attention to than Margins with a capital “M”.

Here’s a relevant example:  if USAP has even one plane sitting idle, someone’s going to ask why this asset is being wasted, since it isn’t in use.   And if that same plane flies so much it breaks down,  someone else is going to complain that USAP isn’t meeting its goals because it didn’t plan properly for that breakdown.   And then when USAP asks for another plane,  they’ll be told to “Do more with the plane’s you’ve got”, resulting in a planner somewhere saying their capacity is now 110% what it used to be,  while also being told to take fewer risks with the government’s assets.  Now add in the fact that USAP is dependent on third-party contractors to fly and maintain the planes and the facilities they need, that some of those contractors are other federal entities (like the military) and even other countries…….    it gets very complex quickly and is a true Catch-22 at its core.   Add a margin for safety or the unforeseen, you’re wasting resources. Face a logistical shortfall, you clearly planned poorly.   USAP can’t win when expectations are piled on top of plans on top of priorities on top of margins on top of contingencies, all while trying to do science in one of most predictably hostile and uncertain environments on the planet.

So while I regret that some of the ANSMET crew are not yet on their way home, and my cranky old man genes want to raise a ruckus, those tendencies are trumped by my sympathy for USAP’s predicament whenever their margins break down, and respect for their ability to handle it.  Expecting USAP logistics to operate exactly at capacity at all times is a fantasy;  Antarctica will crush that dream in a very consistent fashion.  Sometimes all USAP can do is try really, really hard not to lose.   And in spite of the challenges they’ve thrown ANSMET’s way over the years,  when it comes to logistics I really want USAP to win every time.

-RPH on the sunny campus of Case Western Reserve University