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.
On March 19, 2020, United operated its first flight carrying cargo without passengers on board. While the passenger cabin was empty, its cargo hold was completely full, carrying more than 29,000 pounds of commodities from Chicago O'Hare International Airport (ORD) to Frankfurt Airport (FRA).
A year later, United Cargo has operated more than 11,000 cargo-only flights carrying more than 570 million pounds of freight. To support the COVID-19 pandemic recovery efforts, United Cargo has also transported more than 113 million pounds of medical and pharmaceutical products on both cargo-only and passenger flights as well as approximately 10 million COVID-19 vaccines, providing global communities access to the items they have needed most.
"At the beginning of the pandemic, we knew we were uniquely positioned to utilize our widebody aircraft and our network to keep commodities moving, so we quickly mobilized various departments throughout the airline to launch a cargo-only network of flights that would keep commodities moving," said United Cargo President Jan Krems. "Thanks to those efforts, United Cargo has delivered millions of items to countries all around the world. We would not have been successful without the steadfast support of our employees, industry partners and our customers."
Since last March, United Cargo has transported almost 850 million pounds of freight on cargo-only and passenger flights. The airline will continue to monitor market trends adjust its cargo-only flight schedules to help ensure we are meeting our customer's evolving shipping needs.
Whether you haven't flown with us for a while or just need a quick refresher before your spring trip, read this list of tips to know before your flight and arrive at the airport travel-ready:
1. Download the United app for contactless bag check, travel assistance and more
Before your flight, download the United app to view your flight status, check in, sign up for flight notifications, locate departure gates, access our free personal device entertainment when available and more. We've also updated our app with new features that can make your trip a little safer, including contactless bag check.
Don't forget to use Agent on Demand for help with any and all questions you may have before your flight. This new capability is available at all our U.S. hub airports and allows you to use your own mobile device to contact a customer service agent via phone, video or chat to help with day-of-travel questions while you're at the airport. Learn more about Agent on Demand here.
2. Check out the Travel-Ready Center
Our Travel-Ready Center makes it easy to get a personalized overview of everything you need to do in preparation for your flight. Just enter your confirmation number or MileagePlus® number and you'll find detailed information on all the documents, tests and more that you'll need for your trip.
3. Read and sign the Ready-to-Fly checklist
Before completing check-in, all United travelers will need to read our Ready-to-Fly checklist and confirm that they understand and agree to our policies. These include:
Acknowledging that you haven't had any symptoms of COVID-19 in the last 14 days
Agreeing that you will not fly if you have tested positive for COVID-19 within the last 21 days
Confirming that you will follow all policies regarding face masks, social distancing and other health and safety measures we've adopted
4. Arrive early; avoid the stress
Airports can be busy, especially during peak travel periods like spring break season. The TSA advises arriving at the airport two hours before your flight for domestic travel and three hours for international travel in anticipation of long security lines. This can help ease the stress when navigating busy check-in areas, security lines and crowded boarding gates.
5. Get familiar with CleanPlus
United CleanPlus℠ is our commitment to delivering industry-leading cleanliness as we put health and safety at the forefront of your experience. We've teamed up with Clorox to redefine our cleaning and disinfection procedures and Cleveland Clinic to advise us on enhancing our cleaning and disinfection protocols, like:
Disinfecting high-touch areas on board and in the terminal
Using electrostatic spraying, Ultraviolet C lighting wands and more advanced measures to clean aircraft cabins before boarding
Redesigning our mobile app to allow for touchless check-in and contactless payment, along with enhanced travel assistance features
Implementing high-efficiency (HEPA) filters on our aircraft that completely recirculate cabin air every 2-3 minutes and remove 99.97% of airborne particles, including viruses and bacteria
Studies show COVID-19 exposure risk is minimal when air filtration systems and masks are in use, so you can rest assured that the steps we've taken to keep you safe truly make a difference.
6. Wear your mask
Federal law requires all travelers to wear a face mask in the airport, including customer service counters, airport lounges, gates and baggage claim, and on board during their entire flight. Make sure you review the requirements for face masks, including what an acceptable face mask looks like.
7. Get ready for a safer boarding process
To make boarding even safer, we now have travelers board their aircraft from back to front. At the gate, just listen for your row number to be called – we'll ask a few rows at a time to board, starting with the last row of the plane. This helps everyone maintain a safe distance from each other during boarding without slowing things down. As you step onto the plane, flight attendants will hand each passenger a sanitizing towelette, which you can use to wipe down your seat to ensure it's extra clean.
8. Pack smart
Before packing your bags, check to see what exactly you can carry on and what you should plan to check. You can also copy your confirmation number into our Baggage Calculator tool to learn about the bag allowance included with your reservation, as well as the cost of checking any additional bags.
9. Check your flight status, important notices and weather
Check the United app regularly for the latest updates on weather conditions, flight status, gate numbers and seat assignments. You can also visit our Important Notices page to find essential information and updates about travel waivers, international travel, TSA and security, airports and United Club locations.
10. Relax and enjoy your flight
Once you're on board, it's time to sit back and enjoy your flight. Our flight attendants will be happy to help you with anything else you need.
This week, we were honored to become the first U.S. airline to join the UNICEF Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative to combat the COVID-19 pandemic by transporting the vaccine and other critically needed supplies to underserved areas of the globe.
"We are committed to helping the global community in any way we can, and we all must work together to do our part to bring this health and humanitarian crisis to an end," said Director of Cargo Specialty Products Manu Jacobs.
We will leverage our expertise to transport these critical pharmaceutical and healthcare shipments around the world safely, efficiently and expediently. We are proud to partner with the United Nations to support this global effort and provide equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.
Together, we are facing an unprecedented challenge. United Together, we rise to meet that challenge.
Calling all AvGeeks and travelers! Take your next video call from a United Polaris® seat, the cockpit or cruising altitude with United-themed backgrounds for use on Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
Newly added to our collection is a background encouraging our employees and customers to vote. Our mission is to connect people and unite the world — and one of the most important ways to do that is to engage in the democratic process. No matter which party you support, we know our democracy will be stronger if you make your voice heard and vote.
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.
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.
To use on Microsoft Teams:
- 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 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.