By Mike Mangano
Flying South: Australian Flights to Antarctica
For a land literally meaning ‘southern’, Australia isn’t all that far south. Gaining its name from the mythical Terra Australis, it was the last southern frontier in a world nearly complete in its exploration, or so it seemed. Officially, it was in 1820 when another land beyond was discovered – Antarctica – perhaps the true Terra Australis. Today, 200 years later, the two southern continents are linked together by more than just their shared hemisphere – they are inseparably connected by the well-oiled logistical machine of Australia’s Antarctic flights.
As Airline Geeks discovered, there’s much more to flying south than one might imagine. We had an exclusive interview with the Australian Antarctic Division on what makes Antarctic aerial operations so challenging, and how those challenges are met. The discussion revealed that aircraft carriers are not the only runways that are in continual motion.
Situated at an elevation of 2,300 feet above sea level, Wilkins Aerodrome is a summer-only facility about 44 miles southeast of Australia’s Casey Station, an Australian Government-funded research facility located 2410 miles south of the Australian city of Perth. The airport’s elevation is no coincidence, it was selected to minimize the effects of warm summers which can melt the runway and the surrounding areas.
We asked an AAD spokesperson a few questions about their flight operations to this unique destination.
[AG] How long has Australia been flying its aircraft to Antarctica?
The first direct flight between Australia and Antarctica took place in 1964. Demonstration flights to Wilkins Aerodrome occurred during the austral summer of 2006–07 and regular passenger flights commenced during the 2007–08 season. Wilkins Aerodrome is approximately 70 kilometers away from Casey’s research station.
[AG] Has the runway moved since the first flights?
The runway has remained at Wilkins, although its exact position varies year to year. The ice runway is on a glacier that shifts towards the coast at a rate of approximately 12 meters per year, as such it is realigned and repositioned during the construction/commissioning phase annually.
Despite the Australian Antarctic Program (AAP) being a primary government operation, we were surprised to learn that there is a private operator flying an Airbus A319 regularly to Antarctica, as well as a private company responsible for aircraft maintenance on the icy continent.
[AG] Who operates the Airbus A319?
The A319 is operated by Skytraders.
[AG] How are the aircraft stationed in Antarctica maintained?
Jet aircraft utilized by the AAP (A319 and C17 aircraft) conduct return flights from Australia during appropriate weather windows and remain on the ground for around 1-4 hours to facilitate passenger/ cargo offload and reload. These aircraft do not remain in Antarctica overnight or undergo maintenance there.
Kenn Borek crews maintain their fleet of Twin Otters and Baslers contracted by the Australian Antarctic Program.
[AG] How are the aircraft parts imported?
Minimal parts are kept in the unlikely event maintenance is required. Cargo to Antarctica is typically transported by ship or C17.
[AG] We noticed there have been Royal Australian Air Force Globemaster drop-offs requiring in-flight refueling. Could you explain the logistics and organization of such an operation, such as where the tanker came from and what leg of the flight required refueling?
Air-to-air refueling is typically not required for flights from Hobart to Wilkins. Missions covering longer distances or with higher payloads – such as airdrop to Mawson Station – are something the Australian Defence Force has the capacity for.
The first Mawson airdrop took place in September 2017, and another airdrop was conducted in August 2021. A C-17A Globemaster departed Perth and was refueled over the Southern Ocean by a KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport. The aircraft were connected for 22 minutes during the refueling. In all, the C-17A traveled 11,000 kilometers, over 15 hours.
[AG] What is the turn-around time for aircraft to return to Hobart?
Flights from Hobart International Airport to Wilkins Aerodrome take approximately 4.5 hours each way, with planes spending between 1-4 hours on the ground at Wilkins before departing.
As a private pilot in training, this writer has landed on both sealed and grassy airstrips. Wilkins Aerodrome has neither, instead of operating with a ‘blue ice’ runway.
[AG] What exactly is blue ice?
The Wilkins site is approximately 70% exposed ice and 30% snow cover that is less than one meter deep.
[AG] Sealed runways are maintained with construction materials such as concrete, etc. How are blue ice runways maintained?
The foundation of the runway is natural glacial ice, rolled with proof rollers to ensure that the surface ice has suitable bearing strength and integrity to support the aircraft. The runway surface is tillered by a snow-groomer to manufacture higher friction levels prior to each flight of a wheeled aircraft.
[AG] How regularly is action required to maintain the runway?
During the summer operational period runway maintenance is ongoing. Winter snow accumulation is dispersed using heavy machinery. Maintenance is undertaken before each flight lands at Wilkins depending on conditions this can range from several hours to several days to achieve.
[AG] Being an ice runway, naturally, there are mid-summer pauses due to increased temperature impact on the ice. How is this challenge met in the case of emergency flights and logistical issues?
The Australian Antarctic Program (AAP) uses ships and icebreakers throughout summer to resupply stations and changeover expeditioners. In the case of emergency flights, the AAP has a number of contingencies in place including the assistance of other Antarctic nations under quid pro quo arrangements.
Since Airline Geeks’ readers are from all over this great big world, this writer thought it only appropriate to talk about how the Australian program supports international Antarctic operations.
[AG] Are international scientists transported on Australian aircraft?
Yes. The Australian Antarctic Program does assist other nations. Over 2021/21 operational summer, the AAP helped transport French and Italian expeditioners to Concordia station. Similarly, the French vessel L’Astrolabe has transported Australian personnel to sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island.
As the saying goes, “tactics is for amateurs; logistics is for experts”. For the army of researchers and support personnel in the true Terra Australis, the same is true. As Australia’s Antarctic Territory encompasses an area of 3.7 million square miles – approximately 42% of the ice continent – it is obvious the logistical requirements will demand much.
While ships appear to remain an essential part of Antarctic logistics, as they were when the first explorers took their slippery steps on the alien world, Australian flights to the continent deliver a capability the former could only have prayed for. In a matter of four hours, a silver-winged angel (well, a big metal plane) can deliver all the comforts of home to the desolate landscape of Antarctica, and retrieve the sick for a rapid return to the care of civilization.
Thanks to the well-oiled machined of Australia’s Antarctic flights, all this and more means the discoveries from 1820 continue, revealing new truths about this icy land – truths that tell much about the past – and just maybe, the future as well.