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Feb 28, 2011

Hot ice blues in Antarctica as jet flights end

The second and last jet flight between Hobart and the Australian Antarctic blue ice runway some 70 kilometres from the Casey station this season took place yesterday. It has been

An Ilyushin Il-76 at the Union Glacier strip, photo courtesy SummitPost.org
An Ilyushin Il-76 at the Union Glacier strip, photo courtesy Summit Post

The second and last jet flight between Hobart and the Australian Antarctic blue ice runway some 70 kilometres from the Casey station this season took place yesterday.

It has been a very poor season for direct flights by the Australian Antarctic Division’s Airbus A319 jet this southern polar summer because of much warmer and wetter surface conditions than in the previous two seasons it has operated.

Most of the jet airlift for the Australian program has been rerouted through the US base  at McMurdo, which is almost as far away from the Australian Wilkins graded ice strip as Hobart, and more so when headwinds are considered.

The Australian jet worked perfectly, but did so by flying to the American base, where personnel and cargo then had to make what were very long flights in small Twin Otter turbo-props or the Basler turbine engined DC-3, both equipped with skis for rudimentary snow runways as necessary. In terms of logistics this is like flying from Sydney to Adelaide by taking a jet to Perth and then getting into a light plane that will take four times as long to fly a shorter distance in the opposite direction.

The Australian flying season was also disrupted by the early crash of one of its two CASA 212 ski equipped turbo-props.  The damaged aircraft was repaired and flown back to Australia in tandem with its twin  on February 20, landing  just after midnight on February 21, after what was in itself a remarkable long duration non-stop flight from Wilkins to Essendon in Melbourne in 11.5 hours.

The problem for the Wilkins runway, which is long enough and strong enough to take the biggest jets flying, is that it can only do that safely when the surface temperature of the strip is -5C or colder. For almost all of the originally scheduled times for Hobart-Wilkins operations it was warmer than this, or otherwise affected by bad weather or surface melt.  The weather conditions at Wilkins are never as extremely cold or hot as those of many all year airports in Siberia, but Siberia has the advantage of runways made out of concrete, and navigational systems that allow poor visibility movements.

The Australian Antarctic Division will review its plans for the Wilkins strip soon, as the next season logistics for the Australian bases, plus requests for lifts by other Antarctic Treaty nations with inland and coastal bases for which the Australian strip is well located need to be planned in detail in the near future.

One blue ice runway that is doing well on a low cost privately funded budget is the one opened last November  on the Union Glacier near the Patriot Hills, and ‘convenient’ in comparative terms to the Vinson Massif, a range of mountains not even seen by human eyes until 1958.

The Vinsons are visited by small number of climbers each year, usually intending to climb Mt Vinson, the highest peak in Antarctica at 4897 metres, or to use light aircraft to fly even further south for private ski touring expeditions to the South Pole.

Until last year wheeled aircraft chartered from Punta Arenas in southern Chile  landed on the bare wind stripped ice near the Patriot Hills. But those aircraft became too old, and the risks too obvious, so the new blue ice runway was scraped into shape for Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions, which uses Ilyushin IL-76 jets to fly what is a much longer route than the Australian Antarctic Division’s A319 and with a much heavier payload, typically 50 people in full polar kit and their supporting supplies, as well as flying them out with all the waste and garbage they produce on their excursions.

Between November and the end of this January the new strip was used by 12 Il-76 return missions, and 17 such flights are scheduled for the next season starting in mid October when temperatures as low as -40C may still apply, which is the particular briar patch  Russian aircraft are designed to deal with.

The Union Glacier runway is much further south than Wilkins, and generally much colder, and thus unlikely to experience the same problems it has with the same frequency.  The very ice itself is tens of degrees colder than found toward the edges of the ice continent.

The title photo for this article was found without copyright on SummitPost.org. A detailed account of flying there and climbing Mt Vinson by well known climber Alan Arnette can be found at SummitPost , together with more images and a set of YouTube videos.

This report was updated to include new information about the last A319 flight and the remarkable return flights performed by both the CASA 212 turbo-props.

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