T he once unimaginable prospect of passenger flights to Antarctica could now be a possibility following the opening of an ice runway in the sub-zero continent.
The four kilometre long, 500 metre wide runway some 70km inland from Australia’s remote Casey Research Station, cuts a blue swathe through the stark white wilderness of Antarctica and creates a world of future possibilities for air travel to the world’s coldest continent.
For the runway is capable of handling widebody aircraft and on January 11, 2008, welcomed its first ever commercial flight – an A319 service from Hobart, Tasmania, nearly 80 years after polar explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins first flew over the icecap.
This much anticipated landing filled the final “missing link” in global air travel. Until the opening of Wilkins Runway, and the commencement of regular services, Australia and Antarctica had been the last two continents on the planet not yet linked by air.
Pilot, Garry Studd, captained the history-making four and a half-hour flight from Hobart, and the 3am arrival was appropriately spectacular, marked by brilliant sunlight, perfectly still conditions and a biting -16C. After touchdown, he remarked on the smoothness of the laser-levelled runway. “I’ve certainly landed on worse at international airports in plenty of places in the world,” joked Studd.
The landing was conventional – just like any other – and helped by weather conditions that were described as perfect. Studd could see the runway from 10km out, but having landed smaller planes directly onto the ice for years at Australia’s Antarctic research station, knew that in different conditions, he might not have been able to see it at all.
The idea of building a runway in the frozen continent was first mooted 50 years ago, when the Australian Government began its scientific expeditions. Antarctica is a rich resource for research, but it’s fair weather access only. The scientists’ window is the southern hemisphere’s summer, which can run from around late October to mid-February, and by conventional means (sea travel), there’s only one boat in, and one boat out, each season.
“Which means that even if a scientist needed only two or three days to collect moss samples, he could be there for four months,” explains Stuart McFadzean, senior project officer for the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD).
The air link cuts travel times from several weeks at sea to just hours on the plane. “It will revolutionise the way we do our research,” adds AAD chief scientist Michael Stoddart.
Building a runway for scientific purposes would doubtless improve both efficiency and outcomes, yet nothing of this scale had been attempted before.
So, how do you construct a runway on ice – the longest runway in the southern hemisphere – with limited resources and in appalling weather conditions?
Airlink project manager, Charlton Clark, knew the project would test the limits of human innovation and endurance and that the momentous task would be entrusted to a handful of determined expeditioners.
The first consideration was that the runway site needed to be flat, at an altitude neither too warm nor too cold, and in an area of low snow accumulation.
“The site we selected is about 70km inland from Casey (Research) station,” Clark explains. “It has low snow accumulation over winter, which minimises the amount of work we need to do at the outset of each season to remove snow from the infrastructure and the runway.
“It has a slope of less than two percent, so it is as close to flat as we can get. And it is at an altitude of 700 metres above sea level, which provides the best temperature conditions for runway construction.”
The runway is situated on a blue ice glacier, which on its own, would be slippery and difficult to maintain, due to melting of the dark blue surface in the sunlight. To overcome this, the construction team capped the ice with a snow pavement, using techniques adapted from the US Antarctic Programme.
“As well as reflecting sunlight, the snow pavement increases the co-efficient of friction of the runway,” says Clark. “For example, blue ice is like an ice-skating rink, with a co-efficient of friction of 0.1. The snow pavement increases it to 0.3, which is equivalent to a concrete runway under very heavy rain at Melbourne Airport.”
The pavement is made from fresh snow, which is spread across the graded blue ice surface and compressed with a roller to approximately 100mm, so it is like concrete.
“We start compressing with a light weight and low tyre pressure, then add more and more weight up to 57 tonnes and increase the tyre pressure,” says Clark. “This is like going from a sandshoe to a stiletto. Once we have achieved 100% coverage with the roller we let the snow crystal structure bond for 24 hours.”
The integrity of the pavement is then tested with a proof roller, which mimics the pressure of an A319 aircraft.
The pavement could only be built in temperatures of between -2°C and 3°C, and the construction team spent many hours in blizzard conditions and de-icing equipment. Despite the obstacles work progressed on time.
The project has suitably impressed the Governor General of Australia, Major General Michael Jeffery, who describes Wilkins Runway as a remarkable feat of ice engineering.
He says: “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.”
A certified aerodrome under the approval of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), Wilkins Runway will initially be used only for scientific purposes.
Up until now feasibility, funding, inclination and environmental concerns have all served to frustrate plans to land passenger planes from Australia on the continent, but with the basic aviation infrastructure now in place, who knows what the future might hold.
This article features in Routes News 2008 Issue 1