U.S. Upgrades Antarctic Air Link

WASHINGTON, DC, March 4, 2002 (ENS) - The United States has stepped up its capacity to reach Antarctica, opening a new white ice runway to give wheeled aircraft all season access for the first time.

Engineering of a compacted snow pavement on Pegasus Runway at McMurdo Base reinforces the strong logistical role for large military aircraft in the U.S. program. It comes as Australia rejects the military cargo-style option in favour of a long range executive jet for its planned air link.

Aircraft as large as the U.S. Air Force C-5 Galaxy will now be able to land year-round on Pegasus runway, according to the National Science Foundation.


Plane lands at McMurdo's Wheeler Field in Antarctica (Photo courtesy Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica)
Prior to certification by the USAF, large wheeled aircraft were only able to land on the continent very early and very late in the season on runways otherwise only useable by ski-equipped 'planes.

The National Science Foundation said the new runway, in which a thin snow cover was turned into white ice by a 100-ton pneumatic roller, greatly enhanced airlift capabilities to support USAP activities.

It comes with the U.S. program facing new airlift challenges. Its freight schedules to the South Pole with building materials for the new station are reported to have been disrupted this season by weather. The possibility of mid-winter flight also opened last season with a medical evacuation from the pole.

McMurdo Station is Antarctica's largest community. It is built on the bare volcanic rock of Hut Point Peninsula on Ross Island, the farthest south solid ground that is accessible by ship.


McMurdo Station (Photo courtesy James Fastook)
Established in 1956, it has grown from an outpost of a few buildings to a complex logistics staging facility of more than 100 structures including a harbor, an outlying airport with landing strips on sea ice and shelf ice, and a helicopter pad. There are above ground water, sewer, telephone and power lines linking buildings.

Meanwhile, more than five years after the Australian government announced plans to establish the country's first passenger air link with Antarctica, it has selected an operator for the service.

Sydney charter specialist Sky Traders plans a link between Hobart and an ice runway 1,850 nautical miles away near Casey Station, based on the prestige Dassault Falcon tri-jet.

Finance is yet to be assured for construction of a blue ice runway to start next season, and the first flights carrying Australian government expeditioners perhaps in the 2003-4 summer.

The service would represent a significant shift in Antarctic aviation away from the more commonly used military cargo aircraft such as the C-130 Hercules, towards a longer range small jet.


Australia's Casey Station in Antarctica (Photo courtesy Australian Antarctic Division)
Current aircraft often have a point of safe return some hours out from Antarctic airfields, when decisions must be made whether to attempt a landing in potentially difficult weather.

Earlier this month a flight carrying Princess Anne from Christchurch, New Zealand, to Ross Island, had to turn around half way because of adverse weather, and try again the next day.

Sky Traders' chief executive Norman Mackay said the Falcon 900EX has a 4,500 nautical mile range which enabled it to fly to Casey, make two landing attempts, and then fly back to Hobart if it was unable to land.

A 16 passenger configuration on the Falcon would mean there was "no Connolly hide leather seats or clinking Waterford glasses," Mackay said. It is planned to provide 25 flights each year.

Expeditioners bound for other destinations, such as Australia's Davis and Mawson stations, would change to a ski equipped CASA-212 aircraft, a twin engine medium-lift cargo aircraft, that would be based in Antarctica for the summer.

{Published in cooperation with The Antarctican, online at: http://www.antarctican.com}