Flying to Antarctica is a surreal and exciting experience. Here’s a short insight into how things are done.
By far the biggest challenge facing crews flying to Antarctica is the weather. Conditions can change very rapidly that far south, so we prefer to launch with a favourable forecast. If there’s any indication of falling snow or blizzard conditions we assess the risks very closely prior to departing.
Missions like these will usually start at around 2am when the crew will receive a comprehensive weather package by email from the Bureau of Meteorology. At that point, an unambiguous “YEP” or “NOP” message will be sent to key players to either put everything in motion for mission launch, or send everyone back to bed.
Things get very quiet very quickly after takeoff. It will come as no surprise that there’s not a lot of air traffic in that part of the world. The radios are completely silent.
The flight south is about four hours. At about the three hour mark we start to see the occasional iceberg, and the ocean swell will begin to increase (the enormous whitecaps are easily confused as icebergs). It always amazes me just how huge the swell must be if we can clearly make out the individual waves from 30,000 feet.
When we finally cross the unmistakeable shoreline of Antarctica, everyone in the crew has an enormous grin on their face. At top of descent we will receive a final weather check from the ground before we commit to a landing to ensure nothing has changed from the forecast conditions. Even if the weather is perfect we will usually fly the RNAV approach (i.e. using the GPS). As everything is so white it’s very difficult to make out the runway until quite late in the landing, so having the aircraft line itself up with the runway using the autopilot is the easiest approach.
The runway itself is made of ice - but it’s not as slippery as you’d think. It feels like a normal wet runway with just a few more bumps due to natural imperfections. The C-17 doesn’t need any skids or modifications to land on ice, so for us it is simply a normal landing.
The first time I travelled to Antarctica the temperature was being reported as -5*C. “Not so bad”, I thought, and so I left my thick and cumbersome jumper in the cockpit. After walking down the stairs I quickly turned around and reconsidered.
The Australian Antarctic Division guys on the ground offered to drive us to the other end of the runway to have a look. There are no speed limits in Antarctica, so it didn’t take long to get there.
I stepped out of the car and asked the driver the turn off the engine.
I was standing in one of the most remote locations on earth, surrounded by thousands of kilometres of ice, on a continent that only a handful of people have ever set foot on.
With zero wind, it was eerily quiet.
I turned to the Captain: “We’re pretty lucky, don’t you think?”.
…this will probably be the highlight of your career…
…It’s f’ing cold though. Let’s go”.