Jet service between Australia and Antarctica has become a reality thanks to a runway carved out of ice and paved with snow. The Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) is conducting weekly flights between Hobart, the capital of the Australian island state of Tasmania, and the frigid continent using an Airbus A319 jetliner.
The airfield surface, named the Wilkins Runway in honor of Australian polar explorer, pilot, and geographer Sir George Hubert Wilkins, is approximately 40 miles from the Casey Antarctic research station. The 2.5-mile-by-330-foot runway was constructed on the inland plateau of the Upper Peterson Glacier, which moves about 40 feet each year and is 2,300 feet thick.
Work on the runway, which cost AUD $46.3 million (U.S. $42.2 million), began in 2005 and required three summers to complete. Although construction occurred during the warmest part of the year, workers still experienced temperatures as low as minus 32 degrees Fahrenheit and winds up to 115 miles per hour, the strength of a Class 3 hurricane.
In January, the Governor-General of Australia, Michael Jeffery, described the Wilkins Runway as a remarkable feat of ice engineering. “It is fitting that it is named after Sir George Hubert Wilkins, one of the great pioneers of polar exploration and aviation. He encountered many of the same perils that face our Antarctic aviators today — ferocious wind, ice and snow blizzards and absolute isolation,” Jeffrey said.
Runway leveled using lasers
The Wilkins Runway was cut from glacial ice and leveled using laser technology. “The runway here is a lot smoother than a lot of runways at international airports around the world,” said pilot Garry Studd.
White snow ‘pavement’ was bonded to the glacial blue ice to deflect the sun’s rays. Blue ice absorbs heat from the sun and warms up, causing melts and pitted surfaces and creating a potentially unsafe surface for airplanes. Without the snow ‘pavement’, aircraft could slide across the runway during crosswind takeoffs and landings.
Precision approach path indicators installed on the side of the runway provide a visual landing aid to help pilots ensure that their approach angle is correct.
The ambitious project required tracked vehicles, compactors, ploughs, and snow-throwers. Equipment was shipped from Australia by boat, a five-week journey.
Australia uses the Wilkins Runway not only for A319 flights from Hobart but also for smaller, ski-equipped aircraft that shuttle between the Casey facility and other Antarctic research stations.
The A319-115LR (the 'LR' stands for Long Range) can fly 7,500 miles, sufficient to go from Hobart to the Wilkins Runway and back — a total distance of 4,965 miles — without refueling. The flight each way takes about 4.5 hours, depending on the winds. The twin-engine jet is configured so that it can transport up to 40 passengers and 6.5 tons of cargo. After landing, it spends two to three hours on the ground before returning to Australia.
The main purpose of the jet service is to transport scientists and other AAD staff to the Antarctica where research related to climate change, the impact of the rapidly growing krill fishery, and other environmental issues is being conducted.
While Australia might well be the first country to land commercial jets on an Antarctic ice runway, it isn’t the first to operate jet transport aircraft to such runways on the continent. For years, the U.S. Air Force has conducted an annual flying program (called WinFly, short for winter fly-in) to McMurdo Base in Antarctica, using huge Lockheed C-5A Galaxy and Boeing C-17 Globemaster III military jet transports.
When McMurdo's nearby sea-ice runway melts, or is too thin to bear these big jets, the scientists and support staff rely on workhorse C-130s, flown from Christchurch in New Zealand to the Pegasus land-ice runway an hour's SnoCat drive away from McMurdo by Lockheed LC-130 Hercules turboprops of the New York Air National Guard.