Antarctica can be a punishing, lonely place. Humanity has never let either of those notions stop them from exploring our punishing, lonely planet, though. And when we go exploring, we prefer to do it at great speed. That's what made hovercraft the ideal vehicle for the icy Southern wastes.
Not quite boat, not quite plane, hovercraft are hard to handle but can seemingly go over anything. And they're incredibly awesome, though I'm not sure that helps when you're looking out across the desolate frozen landscape at the ends of the Earth.
A hovercraft named Maxine was used by the research team in the 1988-1989 summer season at McMurdo Station, the largest of the Antarctic bases, and was used to ferry researchers out into the field, as covered in a new report from the Antarctic Sun, which covers the American Antarctic program:
Both women, along with mechanics and others, went to Philadelphia in 1987 to learn how to pilot the vehicle. Most of the training took place on the Delaware River, including across mud flats – the closest approximation to ice that was available at the time.
“We trained on water, which was very different than driving on ice,” Krall explains at the McMurdo’s administrative building, called the Chalet, where she works as an administrative assistant, the most recent job in a 28-year-long Antarctic career. “We literally had to train ourselves on new techniques down here.”
Maxine could reach 60 miles per hour across smooth ice, and the idea of zooming across a flat expanse of ice like on some alien planet is incredible. Unfortunately, the ice isn't always so smooth, and it once took nearly two hours to cross a quarter mile of rough ice. The hovercraft's unusually low ground clearance didn't help things, either.
The hovercraft was withdrawn after three years for reasons that are still unclear, and that's a damn shame. If you want to create your own version of Mad Max On Ice, you're going to have to ship your own Maxine out there.
Photo credit: Jeff Thompson/antarcticsun.usap.gov