How Airbus A320s Land On Ice In Antarctica

Antarctica today is more accessible than it has ever been. Gone are the days when only heavy, ski-equipped aircraft could land on the ice. With several runways that are suitable for commercial aircraft, access to the continent is changing. We take a look here at the A320 family aircraft that are used to fly there.

Skytraders A319 in Antarctica.
Skytraders A319 in Antarctica. Photo: Eli Duke via Wikimedia

The A319 in Antarctica

The A320 family has been in use for Antarctica flights since November 2007. This first flight saw an A319, from the Australian Antarctic Division, fly from Christchurch to the US Antarctic base at McMurdo. Since then regular flights have taken place between Hobart, Tasmania and the Australian base at Wilkins.

These are mostly for crew transfer and supplies, operating during the Antarctic summer season from October to the end of February (although it closes for six weeks at the height of summer due to sub-surface melt).

The aircraft has recently been used out of season as well, operating a winter flight to McMurdo to assist with a medical emergency. This took place in March 2020.

Aircraft operated by Skytraders

Today there are three A319 aircraft used for these flights, leased and operated by Australian company Skytraders, for the government’s Australian Antarctic Program. Skytraders acquired its first A319 in 2007, and has since added two more.  When not in use for summer Antarctic flight, they are available from Skytraders for other charters. It currently operates (according to Planespotters.net):

  • VH-VHD – its first aircraft, acquired in February 2007 from Air France
  • VH-VCJ – added in December 2012 (previously operating with Lufthansa, Olympic Air and Aegean Airlines)
  • And VH-VHP – added in April 2019 (previously with Tigerair and Scoot)
Skytraders A319 on the ground in Melbourne.
Skytraders A319 on the ground in Melbourne. It carries the Australian Government and Australian Antarctic Division branding even though not always used by them. Photo: YSSYguy via Wikimedia

There are A319-115LR aircraft, modified with additional fuel tanks for extra range. The higher range is also the main reason that only the A319 is used, rather than a higher capacity A320. Flights operate from Hobart (or Christchurch) to Wilkins and return immediately without refueling. According to the Australian Antarctic Program, this is close to a 4,000 nautical mile roundtrip, easily handled by the A319-115LR’s 5,000 nautical mile range.

The passenger capacity is only up to 38, and they have a more spacious 2-2 layout than is usual. They also have a flexible cargo conversion, being used to transport equipment as well as personnel.

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Landing on blue ice

Antarctica has opened up to commercial aircraft such as the A319 following the development of improved runways. Many bases now have added ice (or compressed snow) runways that can handle the landing of wheeled aircraft, not just ski-equipped aircraft as before.

The runways Wilkins and McMurdo where the A319 has operated are blue ice runways. These are essentially compacted ice runways, able to support wheeled aircraft landing. They are located in areas of Antarctica with no net annual snow accumulation.

Blue ice occurs only in a few parts of Antarctica, and such areas were first discovered in the 1950s. In these areas, snow does not build up, usually due to wind action, resulting in a pure ice surface that is much stronger. Such areas appear blue, unlike the pure white of the rest of the continent, (and can be seen as such from above) due to the different reflections of light from the water and trapped ice in the surface.

Blue ice runway antarctica
Being able to land large planes in Antarctica was a game-changer for researchers. Photo: Getty Images

Before blue ice was used for landing aircraft, aircraft had to land on snow-covered surfaces, usually using skis. Of course, transport by ship (and possible transfer inland using smaller aircraft such as the Twin Otter was also possible). Reaching areas further inland with blue ice runways has opened up new options for transport and supply; and even tourism.

Landing on blue ice

Landing on ice is possible with standard wheeled commercial aircraft, but still not easy. The first consideration is that the runway needs to be much longer than a concrete or asphalt runway.

The runway at Wilkins for example is over three kilometers long. The surface also needs to be kept totally free of snow, which does blow across the surface. This is achieved with graders and snow blowing equipment, but obviously can be difficult during poor weather. Thin grooves are also cut in the ice surface to improve grip.

Naturally, operators and pilots need to stay very aware of weather and atmospheric conditions. This will be checked during flight, but the fact that aircraft carry enough fuel for the return journey would mean they could still abort the flight if conditions were not suitable on arrival.

Blue ice runway
The blue ice runway at Union Glacier. Photo: Christopher Michel via Flickr

Other commercial aircraft flying to Antarctica

It’s not just the A319 that is operating to Antarctica. The use of blue ice runways opens up aviation to many other commercial aircraft capable of flying the distance and landing successfully. Of course. military aircraft, such as US Air Force C-130 and C-17 military transport plane, and the Hercules LC-130H, remain much more common sights, but the use of Boeing and Airbus commercial jets is increasing.

As well as the A319, the narrowbody Boeing 737 and 757 have operated flights to blue ice runways. The 737 first flew in 2019, operated by PrivatAir and chartered by the Norwegian Polar Institut.

A 757, from  Icelandic carrier Loftleider Icelandic Airlines, flew from Punta Arenas in Chile to Union Glacier in 2017, organized by Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions. Titan Airways flew its all-business-class 757 to the Russian base at Novolazarevskaya in early 2020, as a charter carrying participants in the World Marathon Challenge. And in the same season, Titan operated a widebody 767 (for the first time) six times between Cape Town and Novolazarevskaya.

Simple Flying took a further look at this expansion of services to Antarctica recently and considered what it means for tourism charters and possible airline service. Options remain very limited, but there have been some charters for specific groups; although mass tourism is some way off, even if it is ever approved.

Would you like to share any thoughts on aircraft operation in Antarctica? Have you been lucky enough to fly there? Let us know in the comments. 

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