Inside The World Of Antarctic Blue Ice Runways

As the coronavirus continues to make headlines around the world, we thought we would take a look at the last continent on earth that does not have a single case of COVID-19, and its unique blue-ice runways. We are of course referring to Antarctica and the scientists and support staff that live and work on the white continent’s scientific bases. Due to the harsh weather conditions, very few people ever get the opportunity to visit this vast frozen wonderland.

Ilyushin Il-76 of Air Almaty taking off from the Union Glacier Blue-Ice Runway in Antarctica. Photo: Christopher Michel via Flickr

Only a few dozen bases remain open all year and rely on skeleton staff during the winter just to ensure that all the facilities and equipment remain working.

For this reason, before the building of blue-ice runways, deliveries could only be made by ship during the summer when the polar ice started to melt. Once the deliveries were offloaded, they then had to be transferred overland to the research stations by tracked vehicles or ski-equipped aircraft like the De Havilland Canada Twin Otter.

Blue-ice runways allow for the use of wheeled aircraft

Because of Antarctica’s location at the bottom of the earth, the closest counties with airports from which you can fly direct are Chile, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Realizing the need to be able to transport more cargo into the interior and having the ability to launch rescue and medical flights, the decision was made to create blue-ice runways on which large aircraft could land.

The idea of using blue-ice runways is thought to have originated during a United States Army Corps of Engineers program called “Operation Deep Freeze”, during the late 1950s. By the 1970s, large areas closer to the pole started being surveyed for runways able to accommodate wheeled aircraft flying from airports in New Zealand and Chile.

Despite several suitable sites being found, nothing was done until an adventure travel firm called Adventure Network International (ANI), hired a glaciologist named, Dr. Charles Swithinbank to select a suitable location.

blue-ice runway antarctica
Using the ice as runways has allowed larger aircraft to land. Photo: Getty

Once this was done, an ice-airstrip was marked out that enabled ANI to land a four-prop Douglas DC-4 at Patriot Hills in November of 1987. Since then, Italy has opened a blue-ice runway at Terra Nova Bay, Australia at Law Dome, Norway at Troll Station, and Russia at Novolazarevskaya.

As well as the government-backed bases, Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions built a blue-ice runway on Union Glacier for their tourism business.

What is blue-ice?

Because Antarctica is so cold, the snow there is very dry and has an extremely high ‘albedo’ or reflectance of light, which causes the snow to appear bright white. In contrast, inland ice fields on Antarctica have a much lower albedo that looks dark and acts as a natural filter that absorbs yellow and red light. At the same time, it reflects blue light, hence the blue appearance and the term blue-ice.

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

What is it like to land on blue-ice?

Unlike regular concrete or tarmac runways, where aircraft can use its brakes to help slow the plane down, ice’s low coefficient of friction means that rather than brake or use a combination of both brakes and reverse thrust, aircraft landing on blue-ice runways must only use reverse thrust to slow down.

Halley Research Station
Halley Research Station on the Brunt Ice Shelf. Photo: Hugh Broughton Architects via Flickr

What this also means is that the area on which the aircraft lands has to be much longer than a normal runway to give the aircraft adequate time to come to a stop.

Because of blowing snow, blue-ice runways use graders and snow blowing equipment to clear and level the ice for incoming flights. They also cut thin groves in the surface of the ice by towing a rake-like plow to help the aircraft’s wheels grip the surface.

A few years back, my brother Jason was working for the British Antarctic Survey at the Halley VI Research Station. To get there, he first flew from London to Cape Town in South Africa, before boarding a Russian-built Ilyushin 76 TD-90 for the flight to  Novo Airbase, at the Novolazarevskaya Research Station.

When I asked him what it felt like landing on the ice, he said you had the constant feeling that the aircraft was going to spin and that it seemed to take a long time to stop.

Blue-ice runways in Antarctica are now the best way to get personnel and supplies in and out of Antarctica and will forever continue to be so due to the harsh conditions.