Dec 5, 2012

Boeing 737NG joins jet age in Antarctica

Norway has started small jet airliner flights to Antarctica similar to the troubled Australian flights to a strip near Casey, except that the runway is less at immediate risk from global warming

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

Norway media identifies this as Antarctica's first 737 flight, at the end of November.

On the far side of Antarctica from the Australian blue ice runway at Wilkins, Norway has started Boeing 737 NG supply flights to Troll station, using a similarly graded strip but which isn’t likely to melt any time soon.

Troll is located in Dronning Maud Land, and it has the locational advantages over Wilkins of being much higher in altitude as well as latitude, making it far drier and colder, and giving it continuous polar ‘summer’ daylight conditions for longer.

However it is being serviced from Cape Town, not Hobart, which is also a major disadvantage, in that the South Africa airfield is further north, and Troll much further south than Hobart and Wilkins respectively, which really stretches both ends of the operational challenges of payload and fuel planning even more than is the case for the Australian Antarctic Division operation.

The photos published in Norwegian media reports show a 737-700 which carried 33 people to Troll on a flight lasting around five hours. The blue ice runway it used opened in 2005 and is 3300 metres long, compared to an originally published 4000 metres at Wilkins, (now listed as 3200 metres) but is at 1232 metres altitude, and 71 degrees S, compared to the Australian field at 771 metres at 66 degrees S.

The Australian Antarctic Division Airbus A319 LR jet takes a bit more than three hours to fly to Wilkins depending on prevailing headwinds, and has been used productively on much longer missions from both Christchurch and Hobart to McMurdo Sound, where it has at times used the frozen sea ice as well as a set of graded ice runways at the US facility, which is at 78 degrees S.

Since it opened seven years ago Troll has occasionally warmed up to 0 C in summer and recorded -50 C in winter.  Wilkins has seen temperatures higher than 5 C, and two summers ago experienced temporary surface damage from melt water channels.

In that period Troll has been extensively used in the ‘summer’ months by wheeled C-130s, P-3 Orions and the high winged four engined Russian Il-76 transports that do the larger part of the Antarctic air lift if their growing use by adventure travel firms flying to the Union Glacier blue ice runway from southern Chile are counted.

A Wikipedia Commons image of an Il-76 unloading in Antarctica on graded ice

These aircraft were flown under the muti-national Dronning Maud Land Air Network, which supports bases and expeditions on the side of Antarctica best reached from South America or South Africa, similar to the strong interest other Antarctic treaty states have in the Wilkins runway, which is within striking range of Australia’s Casey and Davis stations, and some very ambitious and expanding stations and research programs run by China, Russia, France, Italy and other nations.

The nearby permanently occupied Troll polar research station is on a nunatek or bare rock outcrop protruding from the vast expanse of deep glacial ice on which the Norwegian runway is maintained with heavy duty graders.

The Australian Antarctic Division recently indicated its interest in replacing Wilkins with a gravel based strip in the Vestfold Hills area, which abounds the Davis station.

The history of regular airliners flying to Antarctica began in 1957 when a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser used frozen sea ice near McMurdo Sound. A Lockheed Constellation in a military configuration, which crashed without causing injury at that base in 1970, lies in several large pieces partially buried by snow drifts at its graded ‘Pegasus’ runway.

Since then a wide range of small and larger wheeled jets have operated commercial and scientific charters to the polar continent, but while winter missions have been flown, including by Australia’s A319, regular year round supply flights have not as yet been announced as a funded objective in any public statements by any of the Antarctic Treaty states.

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