Antarctica marks 90 years of icy flying achievements
An Airbus A319 regularly lands at the runway, which is carved into glacial ice. (Supplied: Stuart Shaw)
Antarctica ice runway Wilkins set for upgrade, as crews ready to ‘reposition the strip’
Antarctic aviation has come a long way in 90 years, from hot air balloons and single-engine aircraft to air force giants landing on the icy continent.
Early attempts at flying to the southernmost continent encountered considerable difficulty, starting with Robert Falcon Scott’s ascent in a tethered hydrogen balloon in 1902.
Sir Douglas Mawson planned to fly over Commonwealth Bay in 1911 in a Vickers REP Monoplane but it crashed in Adelaide during a demonstration flight.
The plane never took to the skies in Antarctica but ended up being used as a tractor to move supplies.
The first powered flight in Antarctica was in November 1928 when Australian adventurer George Wilkins and US Army pilot Carl Eielson made the journey in a Lockheed Vega.
Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) records show they took off from a rough airstrip at Deception Island and made a 20-minute flight.
A month later they flew more than 2,000 kilometres across the Antarctic peninsula.
The journey took 11 hours and the men were able to survey areas that would have taken months to cover by dog sled.
A ‘surreal experience’
Ninety years after the first flight, RAAF pilot Lucas Webb landed a C-17 Globemaster on ice at the Wilkins Aerodrome.
It’s the third year the mammoth aircraft has been used to carry personnel and supplies to Antarctica.
The significance of the early aviation achievements on the continent are not lost on Flight Lieutenant Webb.
“It’s impressive to see how far aviation has come; you’re looking at a plane 90 years ago that looked like a coat hanger, and now we’re flying a four-engine heavy jet onto an ice runway down there.”
Douglas Mawson’s Vickers monoplane never flew in Antarctica and was used as a tractor. (John Hunter, 1911)
This month was the first time he had flown to Antarctica and it became an instant career highlight.
“It was a surreal experience,” FLTLT Webb said.
“It’s something very unique and a very privileged thing to do because it’s obviously so remote.
“It’s a unique experience to go down there and see the ice; it’s not the normal terrain we’re used to flying over.”
The RAAF aircraft makes it possible to move high-priority oversized cargo to Antarctica. (Justin Hallock/Australian Antarctic Division)
Landing in Antarctica is not without its challenges.
“From an operational perspective, there’s a lot more to think about in terms of fuel, weather and the surface of the runway,” he said.
“We have to have a lot of contingency fuel in the event of adverse weather at the ice runway and back in Hobart where we operate the flight from.”
The Air Force works closely with the AAD and the Bureau of Meteorology.
“We’re constantly getting weather updates by satellite phone and onboard wi-fi to get information about the weather and the surface of the runway when we’re on our way down,” FLTLT Webb said.
The C-17 can deliver supplies without landing. (Supplied: Australian Antarctic Division/Barry Becker)
A slippery strip
The Wilkins Aerodrome is a 4.5-hour flight from Hobart and only operational during summer.
The closest base is Casey Station, about 70 kilometres away or a 3.5-hour trip over the ice.
A day’s preparation goes into getting the airstrip ready.
The AAD has a regular intercontinental air service from Hobart to the aerodrome using an Airbus A319, which can move 400 passengers each summer season as well as lightweight cargo.
The C-17 crew are trained to land in Antarctica in emergencies, including when expeditioners need medical evacuation.
They are also capable of dropping off cargo without landing.
Wilkins Aerodrome is about 70 kilometres from the nearest station. (Australian Antarctic Division: Chris Crerar)
FLTLT Webb said the airstrip was very weather-dependent and the C-17 landed there only six times a year.
“When you’re down there on the ice, we have to be ready to pack up and go if there’s approaching weather.”
He said the crew could be stranded there for several days in the event of a blizzard.
The ice on the runway is about 500 metres thick and 700 metres above sea level.
“It’s quite a long runway, but being ice it can be quite slippery,” FLTLT Webb said.
“Very few operators fly down there, so to actually land on the continent in a C-17 is definitely a career highlight I’ll lock away in the memory bank for a long time.
“It’s a good bucket list item to tick for sure.”
At the weekend, a Qantas 747 flew over Antarctica and made a rare landing in Hobart, adding another chapter to aviation history.