- An Airbus A340 made history in November when it became the first jet of its type to land on Antarctica.
- The South Pole has a long history of aviation that has contributed to the exploration of the continent.
- A number of airliners, military planes, turboprops, and luxury jets have landed on the polar tundra since 1956.
Airlines operate regularly scheduled service to nearly every corner of the globe across six continents, connecting people to remote islands, deserts, and tundras. However, the 7th continent has proven difficult to reach, though a number of aircraft have successfully made the trek.
Antarctica is the world’s least populated continent and is typically home to about 4,400 people in the summer and only 1,000 in the winter. The inhabitants are settled on the continent’s many research stations and tourist camps, which are regularly supplied by chartered cargo jets.
Source: World Population Review
On November 2, 2021, the first-ever Airbus A340 aircraft made the journey down to the White Continent, marking a historical feat. The plane flew from Cape Town, South Africa, and flew 2,500 nautical miles (2,877 miles (4,630km)) to Antarctica in five and a half hours.
The jet, which was operated by Portugal-based Hi Fly and chartered by luxury campsite Wolf’s Fang, carried supplies for the latter’s upscale adventure camp located on the South Pole. The plane carried enough fuel to make the journey to Antarctica and back.
According to Carlos Mirpuri, Hi Fly’s vice president and the Captain of the historic flight, the 3,000-meter (9843-foot) glacial runway had special grooving to help the jet brake easier, though landing the heavy bird was not a problem. However, the reflective blue ice created a glare during landing.
“The reflection is tremendous, and proper eyewear helps you adjust your eyes between the outside view and the instrumentation. The non-flying pilot has an important role in making the usual plus extra callouts, especially in the late stages of the approach,” Mirpuri said.
Despite the glare, the landing was smooth. “We flew a textbook approach to an uneventful landing, and aircraft performed exactly as planned, Mirpuri said. “When we reached taxi speed I could hear a round of applause from the cabin. We were joyful. After all, we were writing history.”
Hi Fly’s historic flight was just the latest addition to the long history of aviation in Antarctica. In 1928, Australian military pilot George Hubert Wilkins flew a Lockheed vega 1 monoplane from Deception Island in the South Shetland Islands over Antarctica in the first recorded flight to the 7th continent.
Wilkins was accompanied by co-pilot Carl Ben Eielson and the two spent four and a half hours crossing 1,000 miles (1,609km) of the previously unchartered Antarctic area, dropping a flag and document to claim the land for King George V of the United Kingdom.
“For the first time in history, new land was being discovered in the air,” Wilkins wrote about the journey.
William Randolph Hearst, the American newspaper publishing millionaire, funded the project. Flights like these were how worldwide researchers and scientists learned about Antarctica’s topography.
When Australia claimed the title of the first explorers to fly over Antarctica, an American navy man and aviator set out to best his feat. In January 1929, Richard Byrd’s “million-dollar expedition” set out for the South Pole carrying three aircraft and setting up the first “Little America” naval base.
However, Byrd did not fly during his first expedition to Antarctica, worrying his Ford Trimotor plane was too heavy and unreliable. Nevertheless, with determination to beat his rival Wilkins he set out on November 28, 1929, for the South Pole.
Byrd successfully flew across the Ross Ice Shelf and narrowed climbed above the Liv Glacier to the High Polar Plateau during his journey. He dropped a US flag onto the Antarctic tundra, and his achievements far-outmatched Wilkins. After his success, he vowed to return to the polar region.
After a few follow-up expeditions in the 1930s, Admiral Byrd launched Operation Highjump in 1946, sending 13 ships and 33 aircraft to the White Continent for exploration, research, mapping, American territorial sovereignty, and naval preparedness for Antarctic warfare.
It was the largest expedition in history to the continent, though no planes landed on the ice.
While the exploration of the polar wasteland started with “mapping wars,” which led to the need for control over the territory, eventually the focus turned to scientific research.
In 1955, the US Navy launched Operation Deep Freeze to assist the National Science Foundation in its participation in the International Geophysical Year. IGY was a 67-country collaborative scientific project that lasted from July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958, and studied topics like Antarctic weather, marine life, and glacial systems.
As part of its preparations, the US Navy managed to accomplish what many had thought was impossible — landing an aircraft on the Antarctic ice. In October 1956, an R4D-5 Douglas Skytrain touched down on the South Pole for the first time ever.
After the historic landing, a new era of science took off with nearly 70 nations participating in the IGY between 1957 and 1958. After the strong year, the Treaty of Antarctica was signed in which 12 countries committed to peace, science, and research on the continent, though there are 54 parties today.
“Aviation helped to confirm the ice-covered nature of Antarctica, which arguably contributed to a willingness to compromise in the Antarctic Treaty because there was little immediate prospect for economic gain,” Adrian Howkins, a reader in environmental history at the University of Bristol, said.
A number of aircraft have visited the White Continent since the first landing in 1956, like British Antarctic Survey’s fleet of De Havilland Canada Twin Otters and Dash-7s started science flights to the frozen south in 1994.
Source: British Antarctic Survey
Meanwhile, the US Navy launched later versions of Operation Deep Freeze, sending to Antarctica a USAF C-124 Globemaster…
A Lockheed P-2 Neptune…
A De Havilland U-1 Otter…
An R5D Skymaster…
An R4D Skytrain…
And a pontooned helicopter.
Other military aircraft have also landed on the continent, including the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s Boeing 757, which first landed in 2009 and continues to operate supply flights each year.
Although there is no regularly scheduled service to Antarctica, a handful of airlines have touched down on the polar wasteland, including Swiss airline PrivatAir which flew the first Boeing 737 to the continent in 2012.
Source: South Pole Station
Meanwhile, Icelandair’s sister carrier Loftleider Icelandic Airlines was the first airline to land a commercial flight on Antarctica in 2015.
The company ferried 60 tourists on a Boeing 757 to Union Glacier on behalf of Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions ALE. The purpose of both PrivatAir and Loftleider’s journeys was to see if airliners could successfully transport people and cargo to Antarctica.
Between 2019 and 2020, Titan Airways flew two aircraft to the southern-most continent. The first was a Boeing 767 to Russia’s Antarctic station, Novolazarevskaya, which landed several times on a 3,000-meter (9,843-foot) runway made of blue ice…
And an all-business Boeing 757 carrying World Marathon Challenge participants. The landing gear was modified with extended legs to absorb the shock of the ice.
In February 2021, Icelandair made the trek with a Boeing 767 to pick up a group of Norwegian scientists from the Troll airfield in Antarctica. The flight involved a lot of planning due to the treacherous conditions on the continent and required six pilots, 13 crew, and one flight engineer to man the journey.
To land on Antarctica, aircraft navigate to one of 50 icy runways designated on the icy tundra, though none are actual airports. Two notable ones are the Phoenix Runway and Williams Field’s skiway.
In addition to airline and military operations, there are several countries and organizations that fly planes to the South Pole for tourism or scientific research.
Australia’s Antarctic Division ferries expeditioners and equipment from the country to Antarctica. It flies an Airbus A319…
Source: Australian Antarctic Division
And Royal Australian Air Force C-17As.
Source: Australian Antarctic Division
The National Science Foundation, founded in 1959, also regularly operates polar-modified LC-130 Hercules, Twin Otters and Baslers, helicopters, and the US Air Force’s C-17 between Antarctica and two main gateways, including Christchurch, New Zealand, and Puntas Arenas, Chile. The operation is part of the US Antarctic Program.
The LC-130 Hercules was introduced into the military’s Antarctic program in 1960 and has specially made ski-equipped landing gear for landing on the ice.
The De Havilland Twin Otter and Basler turboprops are used for domestic flights within Antarctica. They can carry cargo and land on either ice or snow.
Four helicopters are used in Antarctica, including two AS-350-B2 “A-Stars” and two Bell 212s.
Meanwhile, a C-17 carries the bulk of passengers and cargo between Christchurch, New Zealand, and McMurdo Station each summer. The giant jet can carry approximately 121,254 pounds (55,000kg).
Canada-based Kenn Borek Air flies Twin Otters in support of US Antarctic Program science and in 2016 flew a rescue mission to the seventh continent to evacuate two people at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station who were in need of medical help.
A number of tour operators also fly to the South Pole, like Ice Trek, which flies an Ilyushin-76 from Punta Arenas, Chile, to Union Glacier, Antarctica.
And White Desert, the operator of the luxury campsite on the tundra, which operates a Gulfstream 550 between Cape Town and Antarctica. According to the company, the plane makes the journey in five hours flying at .85 Mach.
Source: White Desert
Antarctica’s history of aviation is just beginning as airlines and countries continue to push the boundaries of the southern tundra in the name of science and exploration.