A public domain photo of unknown origin of a USAF C-17 at McMurdo. Mt Erebus in background

The promised upgrade to Hobart Airport announced by opposition leader Tony Abbott today would transform Australia’s role in Antarctica by unlocking the potential of the Wilkins blue ice runway to take fully loaded large jet freighters.

But his statement only dealt with one end of the link,  by extending Hobart’s 2251 metres runway by a further 500 metres to allow maximum takeoff weight departures by RAAF C-17s. His  specific reference to using the C-17s for Antarctic lift means that some serious rethinking of Australia’s role on the ice continent has been happening in coalition ranks.

Abbott didn’t say anything about the current and very inappropriate ban on jet aircraft being refuelled at Wilkins, which means that flights between there and Hobart by an Australian Antarctic Division Airbus A319 are substantially load limited.

Australia often provides the same A319 to assist in the air lifts between the much remoter US run base at McMurdo Sound and Christchurch, when it performs at its full capacity over much longer stages because McMurdo, like other Argentine, Russian and Norwegian jet capable bases allow refuelling.

The refuelling ban at Wilkins is the intellectual equivalent to Tasmania’s disastrous and ruinous decision early this century to extermine the feral cats on Macquarie Island without simultaneously eradicating its rabbits,  which resulted in a rabbit population explosion that caused severe erosion which will take centuries to fully recover.

What could be more appropriate than this AAD photo of Bob Hawke at Wilkins earlier this year

There is no case for selectively banning jet fuel reserves at Wilkins when the same fuel is made available for more frequent use by smaller turbo-props that use the graded ice runway.

Abbott also linked the $38 million runway extension and upgrades at Hobart Airport to improved access for normal international flights and airfreight operations, and an expanded Antarctic Division research centre.

Since it took its first medium sized Airbus in 2007 the Wilkins Blue Ice runway has been under utilised in some ‘summer’ seasons by surface damage caused by melt water. However it has the length and the strength on its graded glacial ice surface to take any jet flying today, provided refuelling is available.

Recently the Antarctic Division has publicly canvassed moving its Wilkins operations to an all year crushed rock runway in the Vestfold Hills area near its Davis station. Like Wilkins, which is several hours by large tractor vehicles from the Casey Station, a runway near Davis would be logistically invaluable for all treaty nations with bases in that quadrant of Antarctica, including major ambitions for stations on the high altitude domed inland ice by China.

The implication for Australia for some time now has been that if it doesn’t provide useful air links for Antarctic access other nations will do it for us, and make the Australian influence over developments in what is termed Australian Antartic Territory inconsequential.

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