By Deanna Duff For The Herald
Maj. Blair Herdrick has an impressively long work commute.
As a navigator for the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing, Herdrick regularly flies supply missions to Antarctica to support scientific research.
“It’s definitely challenging, which is what makes it exciting,” said Herdrick, who grew up in Edmonds but now lives in New York. “I flew combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and this is way more challenging than anything else I’ve experienced.”
Herdrick, 39, who graduated from Edmonds High School, attended the Air Force Academy before serving nine years active duty in the Air Force. He joined the Air National Guard in 2007 and has since flown 157 missions to Antarctica.
Scientists from around the world conduct research at the South Pole. Air crews, such as Herdrick’s, work closely with the National Science Foundation to arrange transport for people, supplies and infrastructure. They fly to Antarctica during the summer months, which are between October and February.
“There are all kinds of fantastic frontiers of knowledge going on down here,” said Kelly Kenison Falkner, the deputy director of the National Science Foundation’s polar programs, to Stars and Stripes, a U.S. military newspaper. “There is a strong astronomy and astrophysics program, and we have arguably the most productive facility in terms of studying the origins of the early universe.”
Home base is the 80,000-square-foot McMurdo Station, the largest base in Antarctica. During the summer months, McMurdo accommodates an average 1,200 people, including researchers, support personnel and Herdrick and the Air National Guard crew, which numbers around 200.
McMurdo Station is part of the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is overseen by the National Science Foundation.
“It’s built right into the volcanic soil of Ross Island,” Herdrick said. “It’s a pretty comfortable situation, and has a very international feeling because so many countries send their scientists to do field work.”
Researchers commit to six months in Antarctica, but flight crews generally spend a few weeks at McMurdo between trips. Far from the frigid conditions imagined in Hollywood movies, Herdrick describes the summer weather as relatively temperate. McMurdo is located on the coast nearest to New Zealand, and temperatures hover between 20 and 25 degrees Fahrenheit.
“You get acclimated to the cold after awhile. One of my favorite pastimes is to hike the area. I hike just wearing a hooded sweatshirt and sweatpants. We even hold the Antarctic Marathon every year,” Herdrick said. Still, the cold weather does invite some unusual spectators, such as the occasional penguin.
The most dangerous part of Herdrick’s mission is by far the trip itself. As a navigator, Herdrick cannot rely on normal aviation guidance such as air traffic controllers, clearly mapped-out terrain or reliable radar.
“Oftentimes, we don’t have any of that. We have an onboard navigation computer and GPS, but in emergencies we actually navigate off the sun and use sextants,” a navigation instrument used for centuries by explorers, Herdrick said.
The unpredictable weather poses additional hazards. “One of the dangers is that when missions start feeling kind of routine, you develop a sense of complacency. We battle that because it’s such a challenging environment. Challenging weather appears out of nowhere and can completely catch crews by surprise,” Herdrick said.
There actually is not a tremendous amount of snowfall, but strong winds create blizzardlike conditions. Also, blanketlike fog and clouds that touch the ground create low- to no-visibility conditions.
“When we fly down there, we’re not typically carrying a lot of gas, and there is simply nowhere to go when something happens. We have no option but to set the plane right on the ground.”
Herdrick navigates an LC-130, a specially equipped version of the C-130, better known in Seattle as “Fat Albert,” the cargo plane that accompanies the Blue Angels during Seafair.
“One of the things that makes the LC-130 special is that we have skis on the bottom of the airplane that work concurrently with the landing gear. We need the skis for most places we land,” Herdrick said.
Even the “best” Antarctic airstrips are no more than well-packed snow with small, black flags marking the perimeter. Planes routinely suffer damage from rough landings. Particularly when crews re-establish routes or serve outlying research camps, planes land directly in loose snow — a difficult and often dangerous endeavor.
“A few seasons ago, we did an open-snow landing, and when we tried to take off again, the landing skis had actually frozen to the surface of the snow. That can happen fairly regularly and it basically glues the plane to the surface,” Herdrick said. “We couldn’t break free by using the engines, so we broke out the shovels and had to dig the plane out.”
“Blair has certainly taken the path less traveled — figuratively and literally,” said his father, Larry Herdrick, who still lives in Edmonds.
There was no family military history to inspire Blair’s military career. An Edmonds High School teacher introduced the idea of attending a military academy. Combined with his natural love of flying, the Air Force was a natural fit.
“I feel especially with global warming and the research that’s being done there, Blair is doing something really significant to help and I’m so proud of that,” said Sherry Herdrick, Blair’s mother, who also lives in Edmonds.
The most recent season ended in mid-February. While happy to spend time at home with his wife, Herdrick, a full-time National Guard member, is already planning and looking forward to next season.
“Coming to this unit was the best move I made in my career. I’m so happy here and I just love what I do,” he said.
Plus, he rather enjoys his sunny Antarctic jogs. “I joke with my wife that in upstate New York, you deal with harsher winters than in the Antarctic,” Herdrick laughed.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly placed McMurdo Station at the South Pole. McMurdo is on Ross Island, 839 miles north of South Pole Station.