Antarctic veteran still in awe of icy land

RIGHT AT HOME: HNZ Nelson aircraft engineer David Lewis, left, and pilot Phil Robinson with their helicopter at Scott Base in Antarctica.
RIGHT AT HOME: HNZ Nelson aircraft engineer David Lewis, left, and pilot Phil Robinson with their helicopter at Scott Base in Antarctica.

Semi-retired Nelson man David Lewis didn't think he'd return to Antarctica, but a 20th season on the ice was too hard to refuse.

The 67-year-old helicopter engineer is based at the Italian research station in Terra Nova Bay this summer, working for Helicopters New Zealand alongside Nelson pilot Phil Robinson.

Despite being an Antarctic veteran, Mr Lewis said he still found it an awe-inspiring place to work. He enjoyed the camaraderie that went along with being in such an isolated place.

"I enjoy the environment, and meeting other people - some of them are very, very interesting." Mr Lewis has had a busy year, for someone who is semi-retired.

He spent about three months as an aircraft engineer on a research vessel from January, supporting oceanographic work with the Korean Polar Research Institute.

Mr Lewis and Mr Robinson arrived in Antarctica in mid-October, and opened the Terra Nova base with some Italians. The base had not been used during winter, and was freezing cold at about -15 to -25 degrees Celsius when they arrived.

Mr Lewis said they slept in their extreme cold weather clothing and under multiple duvets on the first night.

"It was just like we were in a freezer. It was warm enough, but you knew you needed to have those clothes on," he said.

Mr Lewis' job is to maintain the helicopters that Mr Robinson flies in Antarctica, and he said there were definite challenges to working in such a harsh environment.

If it was a cold day and he had to work outside, he could only use his fingers for a minute before having to warm them up with mittens or hand-warmers for 20 minutes.

"Often a simple task, which might take about an hour to perform in a hangar, can take four or five hours."

Mr Robinson, 53, has done 10 seasons flying in Antarctica and has worked for various research stations.

He has never been based at Scott Base, where he and Mr Lewis were for Christmas this year, but he rated it as the best.

"This place is an absolute credit to New Zealand.

"It's quite a comfortable base in comparison to others. I like the way it's decorated - there's a lot of New Zealand scenery around. When you're outside and everything's white, it's good to come in and see a bit of home."

Mr Robinson said Helicopter New Zealand's primary role in Antarctica was to support science, by carting researchers, guides, other support staff and equipment around.

"It is varied. I have been lucky to fly almost right around the continent. It's a special place. We're quite often flying higher than Mt Cook at Terra Nova," he said.

Pilots needed a lot of patience and flexibility to work in Antarctica, because everything was dictated by the weather.

Strong winds were common and flying visually was difficult on overcast days, when the horizon was hard to define.

"It becomes difficult to see the right way up. There are days you can't do anything, and you have just got to accept that."