A pilot's once-in-a-lifetime adventure in Antarctica
Each week we profile one of our employee's adventures across the globe, featuring a new location. Follow along every week to learn more about their travel experiences.
By Houston-based 737 Captain Charles Scott Williams
Antarctica is a desolate, remote part of the planet that intrigued me, and with the help of Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, arrangements were made, and the trip was a go. Buenos Aires was the midpoint of a journey to the bottom of the world. From Buenos Aires, a charter flight took my wife and me to Ushuaia, Argentina, where we met our ship, the National Geographic Explorer, for the Drake Passage crossing to Antarctica. The reputation of rough seas across the Drake Passage preceded it and a conversation with my next door neighbor, a United States Navy veteran who had sailed this oceanic region in an aircraft carrier, didn't help ward off my apprehension of said rough seas. He told me of waves that equaled the height of his ship's flight deck. The Explorer, at 6,471 tons, is tiny in comparison to an aircraft carrier, and I envisioned bobbing like a cork on the rough seas of the Drake Passage. As it turned out, the seas provided wave heights of approximately 15 feet, which was an interesting ride, but the timing of the crossing was such that we crossed the majority of the Passage while we slept.
I awoke to bright sunshine and calm waters with icebergs floating all around. Like an excited child on Christmas morning, I lept from my bed and went to the window straight away as I woke up my wife to see this new world. Shortly thereafter, I realized that it was still only 3 a.m., as the sun shines in Antarctica for more than twenty-two hours per day during the Southern Hemisphere summer. The further south we sailed, the longer the sun kept us company. Soon we saw floating sheets of ice in the distance, adorned with black dots, that on closer inspection, turned out to be penguins. In the days to come, the ship would drop anchor and we would ride in small boats called Zodiacs from the Explorer to shore and back. Attire included life vests that we donned just as an executive wears a coat and tie to the office. As it was the 100th anniversary of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton's voyage to Antarctica, we were given parkas with patches attached with Sir Shackleton's image. The mud room of the Explorer is the boarding point to the Zodiacs for trips to shore for hiking, and on our first foray ashore we geared up with waterproof boots, parkas with liners and gloves. Topping this all off was the life vest to add to the bulky clothing. It didn't take long waiting in the mud room to realize that this clothing makes you sweat quite readily if you are not outside in the cold Antarctic air. Upon landing, we hiked and saw thousands of nesting penguins with skua birds flying about looking for penguin eggs to steal. Penguins use stones to build their nests to protect the eggs and provide a structure while lying on the eggs to incubate them. One second of penguin inattention led to a skua bird flying off with the distracted penguin's egg.
Nature can be cruel, but this is the harsh survival reality of Antarctica. The skua landed a few feet away, broke the egg and had lunch, while a penguin family will wait another season to begin again their quest to reproduce. Another day on the exploration was spent sailing in a Zodiac looking at the different ice formations and bergs floating in the waters. To see a massive block of floating ice crack into two pieces is impressive to say the least, as well as the sound of a section of glacier breaking off, which sends explosive echoes off the surrounding mountains. Thousands of tons of glacial ice hitting the water below sends out a huge propagation wave that ripples across the ocean surface. As we toured in the Zodiac, we came across a crab-eating seal that was sunning atop a small ice sheet. Later in our exploration, we saw a pod of killer whales, 100 meters off the bow.
During the journey, I observed spectacular lenticular clouds above distant mountains that exceeded in size and structure those viewed in the Rocky Mountains in North America.
Our fellow passengers were people from all walks of life, many retired, making my wife I the second-youngest couple on the ship. One of our stops was Port Lockroy, a former English weather station from World War II. The tiny gift shop at the fort offered postcards that could be sent back to the U.S. via the Falkland Islands and then finally on to friends and relatives. The postal trip took our cards about three months! One of the unique qualities of the Explorer is that of limited ice-breaking capability. As we sailed slowly through ice-infested waters, the impact of smaller sheets of ice could be felt through the entire ship as the bow made contact and either moved the ice out of the way or split the ice in half, thus clearing the path for forward movement. On more than one occasion, the Explorer's bow was wedged into sea ice and after inspection, passengers were allowed to walk on "frozen ocean." In my past military service, I was based in Minot, North Dakota, and thought that I was at the end of the world. If you wanted to get away from it all, just go to Minot, and you'd nearly be there. After standing on frozen ocean at the bottom of the world in Antarctica, the relativity of getting away from it all was set to a much higher standard of desolation.
My waterproof boots and thick socks kept my feet warm, and the parka I wore did the same for my upper body. The cold air made my breath visible standing on the ice and taking it all in. I turned about slowly and peering into the empty distance, could hear only the blowing wind. That peaceful quiet magnified the remoteness and isolation of this special place. It's one thing to go to the edge of civilization for a peek, but I did so knowing that my "home away from home," the Explorer, was only about 200 meters away.
Although most folks consider Antarctica a lifeless place, to the contrary, Antarctica thrives with life that fights for survival every day. The life forms in Antarctica have adapted to the subzero temperatures and howling winds that plummet the chill factor much lower. One such life form is that of lichens, an orange growth that can be seen clinging to the rocks of the mountains that towered above. We were told that a sample of this was sent into the hard vacuum of space on a satellite and left for an extended period. Once retrieved, the lichens were still alive! Penguins "queue up," or stand in line to enter the water like paratroopers jammed together awaiting the green light that tells them to jump.
These Antarctic birds do so to increase their chance of survival should a crab-eating seal or other predator lie waiting beneath the water for their arrival. One after another, they dive from shore into the ocean to forage for food. Having snorkeled in The Galapagos Islands, I've seen the aquadynamic shape of a penguin zip past my dive mask and can attest to their rapid maneuverability and very capable velocity. These attributes are often called upon out of necessity to survive when a penguin is trying to "jink" away from or outrun a predator that is eyeing it as a meal.
For much of the trip, there was no, or very limited, communications with the rest of the planet. It was nice being "off line" and having no cell phone or computer beckoning my attention. This left one's focus on just being there and taking it all in. Time waits for no one, and, as the days passed, the time eventually came for us to set sail to the north for the roller coaster ride back across the Drake Passage. I stood on the fantail and took a last look aft as our compass was pointed north for Ushuaia and we left Antarctica in our wake. The light of the nighttime faded as we moved further north and back to the reality of our lives that had been held at bay briefly by the magic of Antarctica.
As a member in the tourism, travel and transportation industries, United offers a unique perspective into the economic and operational effects rippling across the U.S. To advocate United's efforts, and in anticipation of a bright future, New York/New Jersey President Jill Kaplan and California President Janet Lamkin have both been named to their states' respective governor's COVID-19 response task force committees.
Appointed by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, Jill joins the New Jersey Restart and Recovery Advisory Council — a group of business and municipal leaders tasked with planning to restart the state's economy.
"Serving on Governor Murphy's Restart & Advisory Council uniquely positions us in the epicenter of helping to restart state's economy by providing innovative ideas, sharing best practices and creative thinking to help ensure the rebuilding of New Jersey's economic vitality alongside notable business leaders," said Jill. "I'm honored to represent United Airlines and the transportation industry as a core building block to expediting the state's recovery."
United is the sixth largest company in the state and one of the largest essential businesses continuing to operate through this crisis, and as or advocate, Jill will share some of our best practices and lessons we're learning with the nine different committees through the customer and employee lens.
On the opposite coast, California Governor Gavin Newsom last month appointed Janet to his Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery. Joining Janet at the table are former California governors, legislative leaders and CEOs and executives from numerous businesses with large stakes in the state, such as Apple and Disney. In addition to Janet's position on the task force, Janet is also serving on the Long-Term Jobs Recovery sub-committee and will advocate for industries suffering long-term ramifications of COVID-19 such as tourism, travel and entertainment.
"Being appointed to Governor Newsom's Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery ensures that United is part of the important conversation and part of the plan to help California pave the way toward a fast, safe recovery of jobs," said Janet. "It is an honor to represent the only transportation business on the task force, and I look forward to working alongside a group of very distinguished leaders and focusing on innovative ways to rebuild the economy for our 40 million residents. This work will build on our partnership with the Governor to provide free flights for medical volunteers and having our employees call to check in on isolated older adults as part of the Social Bridging Project."
Pre-COVID, we transported 38 million passengers to, from and within California each year, and directly and indirectly supported tens of thousands of jobs, so the health and well-being of the industry is vital to the prosperity of the state.
As the only airline represented among each of these groups, Jill and Janet are working hard to ensure that our voices, as a company and industry, are heard, valued and utilized as a new chapter dawns on the horizon.
Hello. I'm Scott Kirby, the new CEO of United Airlines. I'm a proud Air Force Academy graduate and have spent my entire career in and around aviation, including the last four years as President of United.
While I had planned for my first communication with you to be about the meaningful investments we were making to the travel experience and our continued growth across the U.S. and expansion to exciting new destinations around the world, today, the situation rendered to us by the COVID-19 pandemic leads me to a different type of message.
First, I graciously and humbly thank you for your business. Now, more than ever, our customers' loyalty is so deeply appreciated by every member of the United family.
As essential workers, the men and women of our airline have been hard at work over the past two months to transport vital medical supplies and critical goods to places that need them most, to provide free travel to healthcare professionals and to help thousands of individuals repatriate to their home countries.
Safety has always been our top priority, and right now in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, it's our singular customer focus. We recognize that COVID-19 has brought cleanliness and hygiene standards to the front of your mind when making travel decisions. We're not leaving a single stone unturned in our pursuit to protect our customers and employees.
We are installing plexiglass in lobby and gate areas, we're using the same equipment used to clean hospitals to disinfect the interiors of our aircraft, all crew and customers on board are required to wear face mask coverings and we're taking the temperature of our employees before they start work.
But at United, we're not stopping there. We're teaming up with experts from Clorox and the Cleveland Clinic to set a new standard for cleanliness and healthy flying that we are calling United CleanPlus℠.
Clorox is working closely with us to improve how we disinfect common surfaces and provide our customers with amenities that support a healthy and safe environment.
Physicians and scientists at the Cleveland Clinic, will advise us on new technologies and approaches, assist in training development and create a rigorous quality assurance program. And, as scientists learn more about how to fight COVID-19, Cleveland Clinic experts will help us use those discoveries to quickly implement new ways to keep our customers safe.
While we may not know when this pandemic will subside, what we do know is that travel is so deeply woven into the fabric of our global culture. We all desire to visit family, dance at a friend's wedding, hug parents…and see the wonders of this beautiful world. No matter how sharp the picture quality – or how strong the WiFi signal – there's simply no substitute for being there – in person – to collaborate, celebrate, explore. We are confident that travel will return. And when it does, United Airlines will be ready to serve you again in the friendly skies.
Thank you. Be well. And I look forward to seeing you on board.
At the airport
1Implementing temperature checks for employees and flight attendants working at hub airports
2Installing sneeze guards at check-in and gate podiums
3Encouraging use of the United app for contactless travel assistance and more
4Promoting social distancing with floor decals to help customers stand 6 feet apart
5Introducing touchless check-in for customers with bags
At the gate:
6Disinfecting high-touch areas such as door handles, handrails, elevator buttons, telephones and computers
7Providing hand sanitizer and
8Allowing customers to self-scan boarding passes
9Boarding fewer customers at a time and, after pre-boarding, boarding from the back of the plane to the front to promote social distancing
On our aircraft
1Providing individual hand sanitizer wipes for customers
2Requiring all customers and employees to wear a face covering and providing disposable face coverings for customers who need them
3Temporarily removing onboard items like pillows, blankets and inflight magazines
4Disinfecting high-touch areas, like tray tables and armrests, before boarding
5Reducing contact between flight attendants and customers during snack and beverage service
6Ensuring aircraft cleaning standards meet or exceed CDC guidelines
7Applying social distancing to seating procedures when possible, including:
- Limiting middle seat selection
- Moving customers seated closely together
- De-planing in groups of five rows at a time to reduce crowding
8Using electrostatic spraying to disinfect aircraft, to be completed on all flights by mid-June
9Using state-of-the-art, hospital-grade, high-efficiency (HEPA) filters to circulate air and remove up to 99.7% of airborne particles
We're working closely with the experts at Cleveland Clinic to advise us on enhancing our cleaning and disinfection protocols for the safety of our employees and customers. Visit Cleveland Clinic's website to learn more about COVID-19.
Together, we are facing an unprecedented challenge. United Together, we rise to meet that challenge.
Calling all AvGeeks and travelers! Here's a fun way to take your next video call….from a United Polaris® seat, the cockpit or cruising altitude. We're introducing United-themed backgrounds for use on Zoom and Microsoft Teams, video conferencing tools that many people are using to stay connected.
So for your next meeting or catch up with friends and family, download the app to either your computer or mobile device to get started. If you've already downloaded Zoom you can skip ahead to updating your background image (see instructions below).
To use on Zoom:
- Start here by downloading your favorite United image to your computer or mobile device. Just click "download" in the bottom left corner of the image.
- Next go to your Zoom app (you'll need to download the app to access backgrounds) and click on the arrow to the right of your video camera icon in the bottom of the screen.
- From here select, "choose virtual background" to upload your uniquely United photo.
- Start by downloading your favorite United image to your computer. Just click "download" in the bottom left corner of the image.
- If you're using a PC, copy the image you want to use into this folder:
- C:\[insert your device user name here]\AppData\Microsoft\Teams\Backgrounds\Uploads
- If you're using a Mac copy the images to this folder on your computer:
- /users/<username>/Library/Application Support/Microsoft/Teams/Backgrounds/Uploads
- If you're using a PC, copy the image you want to use into this folder:
- Once you start a Teams meeting, click the "…" in the menu bar and select "Show background effects" and your image should be there
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This is why we fly.
20 UCSF Health workers, who voluntarily set aside their own lives to help save lives, are on their way to New York City.
We are humbled by your selfless sacrifice.
In celebration and appreciation of all first responders and essential workers. 👏🏻👏🏼👏🏽👏🏾👏🏿
This is the story of Jason and Shantel. You see, Jason and Shantel love each other very much. They also love traveling and they love the classic Adam Sandler film, The Wedding Singer.
It all began when Jason reached out to United's social media team, hoping for assistance with his upcoming plan to propose. Some phone calls and one borrowed guitar later, the stage was set for Jason. Put all that together, mix in some helpful United employees and, voila, you have a truly memorable marriage proposal. Congratulations to this fun-loving and happy couple, and here's to many more years of making beautiful music together.
A big thank you to Chicago-based flight attendants Donna W., Marie M., Karen J. and Mark K. for making this proposal come to life.