Australia-Antarctica air link opens, complete with ice runway


WILKINS RUNWAY, Antarctica (AFP) — A historic passenger jet flight from Australia to Antarctica touched down smoothly on a blue ice runway Friday, launching the only regular airlink between the continents.

Some half a century since the idea of a runway on Antarctica was first raised, the Airbus A319 from Hobart landed at Wilkins near the Australian Antarctic Division’s Casey Station, an AFP photographer on board said.

Environment Minister Peter Garrett, who was among some 20 officials, scientists and media on the inaugural flight, said the view from the cockpit was breathtaking as the plane approached Antarctica.

“To see the icebergs, the small amount of settlement here and nothing as far as you could see in every direction and then this runway appears as if from out of nowhere,” said the former Midnight Oil frontman.

“It’s a remarkable engineering feat these people have achieved. It’s a logistical triumph and connects the last two continents to be linked by air,” he said.

“This is a very big occasion, it certainly is historic. A new era will unfold for us in terms of looking after our planet.”

The runway, which is four kilometers (2.5 miles) long, 700 meters wide and moves about 12 meters southwest a year because of glacial drift, was carved out of the ice and leveled using laser technology.

“The runway here is a lot smoother than a lot of runways at international airports around the world,” said pilot Garry Studd.

The 46 million dollar (US$41 million) runway took more than two years to build and is designed to bring scientists and other Australian Antarctic Division staff to the frozen continent to study issues such as climate change.

Flights will arrive weekly during the warmest months of October to March but will not be open for tourist travel.

Previously, scientists had been forced to spend up to two weeks on a ship to get to Casey Station.

“It will revolutionize the way we can do our research,” the division’s chief scientist Michael Stoddart told Australia’s AAP news agency.

The flight took off from the southern Australian city of Hobart and took four-and-a-half hours to reach Wilkins. It remained on the ground for three hours before making the return journey without the need to refuel.

The runway was named after the adventurer and aviator Sir Hubert Wilkins, who made the first flight in Antarctica 79 years ago.

Other nations with Antarctic research stations have been flying to the icy continent for years from countries such as New Zealand and South Africa, but use military aircraft.

The Australian Antarctic Division says its introduction of a modern jet aircraft, which can complete the return journey without refueling, marks the start of a new era.