Antarctic runway search has special challenges
There is a really good reason why Australia needs to build a better runway in Antarctica. If we don’t, someone else will.
The setbacks suffered by Australia’s Wilkins Blue Ice runway in Antarctica through episodic surface melting in high summer have turned attention to alternatives, with the most likely being the vast Vestfold Hills area which begins close to the Davis Station.
Vestfold comes with many advantages, but it is also a highly sensitive and intriguing area, containing an incredibly long series of geologically preserved lakes locked up beneath and near the many current lakes that briefly thaw under the higher sun and warmer winds that can blow on them from the Southern ocean.
Given the knowledge and dedication of Australian and treaty nation scientists and a legacy of careful research, there is no risk that those factors will not be considered and conserved if a suitable site is identified within the extensive area of the low rounded hills, lakes and gravel plains that comprise the Vestfold area.
The interest from an aviation perspective, is what the identification and construction of a Vestfold runway, subject to the environmental obligations, would mean for Antarctic air services and like Wilkins, the benefits that arise from enabling short term scientific research support without requiring the participants to spend weeks on ships getting there, and in some cases, having to winter over when the primary mission might only last a matter of months if not weeks.
But maybe the best starting point is to look at why Wilkins didn’t work as intended.
Location is a major factor. Ice runways have been much more successful when located further south, away from coastal influences, although there is an inland constraint in terms of altitude. Runways on the domed ice, which rises to more than 4000 metres above sea level, and where actual air pressure equivalent altitude is usually somewhat higher because of very persistent and deep areas of low air pressure, are not practicable for heavy lift aircraft, yet, and are very dangerous for small aircraft where the difference between cruise speed and stalling speed can narrow in that thin air to very small changes in velocity.
The south pole Amundsen Scott base is one thing at 2835 metres, and is regularly served by aged ski-equipped C-130s and some smaller turbine powered aircraft, but around the highest domed ice, in the vicinity of Dome A and Dome C in particular, any heavy lifting is for a period likely to remain the province of large tractor trains dragging loads landed by sea or air close on the margins of Antarctica.
The Wilkins site was thus constrained by the operational and logistical negatives of higher altitude sites further inland, and the weather challenges of near coastal locations. Wilkins is 70 kilometres or three hours by tractor or appropriately equipped trucks from the Casey Station. There is an alternative ski-way for aircraft at Lanyon Junction, very close to Casey, which the writer used in 1979 in a US ski-equipped C-130 which flew there from McMurdo, as one of a series of examinations of its suitability for a fixed ice runway suitable for wheeled aircraft.
Lanyon Junction proved abundantly unsuitable, being in a higher and wetter snowfall area than Wilkins. (But a fantastic place to fly into nevertheless.)
Graded ice runways have been proven to be capable of safe regular use by standard wheeled aircraft like the Airbus A319 that the Australian Antarctic Division uses, provided the wheel loading is sufficiently well spread by the main gear. With a length of 4000 metres, Wilkins could readily take an A380 or almost any other jet in normal service in the non-polar regions of the planet, but in practicable load carrying terms, the more likely large aircraft movements to Wilkins could have been the A330 multi role tanker transports or C-17s flown by the RAAF, or chartered cargo jets such as converted or purpose built 747s.
But that also only makes sense if Wilkins was set up to unload and distribute such cargo. This summer, as in previous summers, Wilkins is being used by the A319, the Basler turbo-prop DC-3, Twin Otters and C-130s. The smaller aircraft use it as a polar hub, distributing scientists and support consignments to a variety of field destinations and other bases, including Davis, Mirny, Concordia and so forth.
It was and still is from a policy point of view, a very important Australian contribution to Antarctic programs. But not for larger wheeled jets in the periods at risk from surface melt.
This summer as in recent high sun seasons, the A319 is doing a fair bit of flying directly from Australia to the US base at McMurdo Sound, or sometimes via Christchurch, where personnel intended for Casey or nearer field sites are then flown from the US base to Wilkins, or Lanyon Junction, by smaller aircraft, sometimes via a tech stop at the French base at Dumont d’Urville, which is suited only to smaller aircraft.
It also has to be said that the essential utility of Wilkins was unnecessarily compromised by a ruling that larger jets like the A319 could not refuel, meaning that to safely fly a mission from Hobart, lasting at least seven hours in total flight time, including fuel for a missed approach on arrival, and engine failure or depressurisation and so forth at critical moments of the flight plan, there was precious little real payload that could be carried.
The Antarctic Division’s jet was as a result a brilliant payload performer on flights to more distant McMurdo Sound, where it could refuel, than it was to Wilkins, where it often met smaller turbo props and helicopters which of course could be refuelled.
At Vestfold the runway could be built on a gravel base, and being close to Davis, is convenient in a relative sense to the maritime and overland delivery of construction equipment. It could have sophisticated navigational aids, and it is located in a weather zone that is neither as cold nor dark in winter as many airports in Canada, Alaska, Scandinavia, Siberia, Spitzbergen or northern Greenland, meaning it could operate all year, as could have Wilkins, in theory.
It needs to have refuelling facilities, like almost every permanent base related airstrip in Antarctica.
Australia has another reason to build a capable air base at Vestfold, either on its own, or as part of an Antarctic Treaty nation consortium.
And that reason is that if it doesn’t, someone else will. Neither Australia nor any other treaty state has an authority over the actions of any other state. The treaty is a wonderfully collaborative and well intentioned agreement among like minded nations, but it is unenforceable in its own right.
The only way any state could prevent any other state doing anything in Antarctica is, ultimately, to resort to force, and the temptations that are often articulated about ‘breaking open’ Antarctica’s resources by mining and mineral exploration proponents need to be front of mind in any consideration of Antarctic policy settings.
If Australia wants to continue to be an Antarctic power, that is, a power for good, it needs to do good things that will keep it influential and inside the tent.
It needs to continue to do what it started to do at Wilkins, and facilitate effective air support for science and environmental protection in Antarctica.