Smoke On Go

Flying into Antarctica

Getting to Antarctica has never been easy. If you were able, you could ask the likes of Robert Scott, Roald Amundsen or Ernest Shackleton, but even with long-established research and conservation stations, it’s an arduous journey by ship across some of the most violent Southern Ocean systems.

By Chris Buchanan Images: White Desert Antarctica and HiFly

Getting to Antarctica has never been easy. If you were able, you could ask the likes of Robert Scott, Roald Amundsen or Ernest Shackleton, but even with long-established research and conservation stations, it’s an arduous journey by ship across some of the most violent Southern Ocean systems.

Tourism operations began in the late 1950s and early 60s ferrying visitors across the Drake Passage from southern cities in Argentina and Chile. The sector mushroomed into the 21st century and cities like Ushuaia in Argentina gained a new lease on life in the summer as a cruise ship hub, ferrying thousands of tourists to the Antarctic Peninsular for ship-based day excursions onto the continent. Antarctica became the ultimate bucket list destination, accessible at a price and a sledgehammer to the senses.

Around 55,000 people set foot on Antarctica every year, fewer than a fairly busy day at the Cape Town Waterfront. They get to see penguins, seals, whales and Orcas if they’re lucky, and a snow petrel if they’re really lucky. They get the ice and beach gravel on their shoes, and they breathe the cleanest air on the planet.

While traversing the Antarctic, hardened explorer Patrick Woodhead and three other team members, had to bivouac down as a storm raged around them for four days. The delusion of 96 hours of confinement got them asking the question, “Why do only scientists and the odd polar explorer ever get to see the real Antarctica?”

By the real Antarctica, they implied the interior, and aviation held the key to unlocking an experience of the wild Antarctic frontier, as well as the opportunity to partner with research facilities providing logistics support. The area was Queen Maude Land and Woodhead founded White Desert Antarctica and revitalised the abandoned Wolf’s Fang Runway, almost 200km inland on natural blue glacial ice.

Its tourism offering consists of futuristic pod- based eco-camps with luxury service levels and tailored excursions into the mountains, the ice tunnels, emperor penguin colonies, and to the ultimate Antarctica destination – the South Pole.

The logistics of White Desert’s tourism operation in Antarctica has sustainability at its centre, in line with the permits issued by the British Foreign Office. The requirement necessitates seasonal documentation including environmental impact and the operation has five main sustainability focus areas.:

  • Carbon neutral operations,
  • Waste removal from the continent,
  • Solar power on ice,
  • Utilising SAF fuels, and
  • Removing single use plastics from the supply chain.

Flying into Wolf’s Fang is a 2,500 nm, five-hour trip from Cape Town International either on a Gulfstream 550, operated by Avcon Jet Africa or an Airbus A340 leased from HiFly based in Portugal. White Desert has started to use the A340 more frequently because it allows them to bring in significantly more cargo (especially helpful as they’ve been building a brand-new camp Echo) and also for defueling from the wing. This increases the efficiency of getting fuel into Antarctica rather than the traditional route using a ship with an overland traverse.

Three ski-equipped aircraft are based on the ice for the season – a de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter and two DC3 Baslers which are used to fly to the South Pole and to Atka Bay, as well as logistics support for the scientific stations that White Desert partners with.

There is a ground-based team that grooms the runway prior to every landing, which takes about 22 hours per event. There is also a team that monitors the weather both from Cape Town and on Antarctica.

As a tourist on a White Desert excursion, you’ll be one of 250 people who get to experience life in the interior of Antarctica, now accessible through the vision of pioneers in exploration and aviation.

A pilot’s perspective

Captain Carlos Mirpuri, commander of the Airbus A340 and vice-President of HiFly gave Smoke On…Go! his account of the flight into Wolf’s Fang Runway (WFR)

•             What is your overall impression of the flight to Wolf’s Fang?

 A unique, demanding, and unprecedented experience. It is not only the fact that you land on a blue-ice runway with minimal ground aids to facilitate the arrival and approach to Wolf’s Fang but also the fact that there is no local maintenance assistance. The aforementioned conditions make the operation demanding and require very careful planning and execution. Considering the above, the feeling of landing the aircraft on the blue ice runway is amazing and cannot be described.                    

•             How do you manage your approach to the airfield?

There are no ground navigation facilities or visual guidance systems, so the approach has to be planned and executed based solely on the onboard available equipment. Also, the fact that the runway and the surrounding area are white giving a unique (orientation) sense regarding speed, distance, and altitude. The altimeters in cold weather also suffer from temperature errors and need adjustments.

•             How do landing and take-off differ on a surface such as ice?

The blue ice runway is very well treated and conditions are monitored before and throughout the flight; its behaviour and braking capability characteristics are perfectly acceptable for an otherwise slippery runway. The colder the better. We further increase our safety and performance margins by treating it as a runway covered with compacted snow.              

•             The weather window must need careful management, how do you do this?

 Yes. It is done by studying different weather models and local observations both during the planning and flight phases. An operational meeting is done before each flight where a go/no go decision is taken based on a combined weather model analysis. Space weather is also monitored as certain conditions can have a negative effect on both communication and navigation equipment. Weather is closely monitored during the entire flight and if an unpredicted deterioration occurs the flight does not continue to Wolf’s Fang.

•             With no maintenance assistance what contingencies do you have?

A team of specialised technicians is onboard each flight and certain critical spare parts and equipment are also carried onboard. Further to that if there is a non-time critical failure that still affects the aircraft redundancy the crew has clear instructions to abort the mission and return to Cape Town at any phase of the flight up to the landing.

Wolf’s Fang Runway Overview

Co-ordinates: 71° 31′ S, 08° 48′ E

Elevation: 1127m AMSL

Length: 3000m

Width: 60m

Orientation: 175 True

Declared Distances: TORA AND LDA – 25OOm / TORA AND ASDA – 30OOm




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