Qantas Boeing 787 Dreamliner Chases Antarctica’s Southern Lights

It is that time of the year when the Aurora Australis light show starts lighting up the cooler reaches of the southern hemisphere’s night skies. Like chasing the northern lights, the further north, or in this case the further south you go, the more dazzling the show. Over the last few days, Qantas 787-9 Dreamliners have been heading down into the Antarctic regions, down as far as latitude -60° to see the light show.

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Two Qantas 787 Dreamliners have been down in Antarctica chasing the southern lights. Photo: Brad Phipps/Chimu

Two Antarctic Aurora Australis light show flights over two days

On Friday, May 14, VH-ZNJ Longreach, a Qantas Boeing 787-9 headed out of Brisbane early in the evening for an 11.5 hour round trip down south. The following day, Saturday, May 15, VH-ZNF Boomerang made the same trip from Sydney. Onboard were passengers primed to pull an all-nighter for a chance to see the southern lights at their best.

Unlike many scenic flights involving Qantas planes, including this month’s supermoon flight, these flights slipped under the radar without the usual Qantas-style blast of publicity. Why? These flights are charters, organized by a travel business, not Qantas. Consequently, the Qantas PR machine had some downtime.

The flights were organized by the Australian travel and adventure business, Chimu. In season, they organize Antarctic day flights from various Australian cities, taking passengers on a jaunt over the coast and mountains of East Antarctica. Chimu also charters a Qantas plane (formerly they used a 747-400, now it’s a downsized Dreamliner) for an annual New Year’s Eve Antarctic flight.

With Australians grounded and likely to stay that way for another 12 months or so, there’s plenty of demand for slightly off-beat trips like these that get you up in the air but abide by Australia’s strict no-international travel rules.

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Qantas sent two different Dreamliners, VH-ZNJ and VH-ZNF down to Antarctica this weekend. Photo: Qantas

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Dreamliners zigzag across the skies chasing the southern lights

Friday evening’s flight from Brisbane, QF1336, pushed back at 19:45 local time. Aircraft tracking website RadarBox.com, has the flight tracking south and veering southeast out to sea near Newcastle, New South Wales. By 23:00, VH-ZNJ is out at longitude 154 and heading south.

Out deep in the Southern Ocean, the plane goes chasing the Aurora Australis light show, darting off in different directions until about 04:30 when the Dreamliner sets course for a pre-dawn flyover of Tasmania and thereafter a fairly conventional run into Brisbane, landing just after 07:00 on Saturday morning.

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Friday night’s flight from Brisbane. Source: RadarBox.com

“This light show is as much about shapes as it is about lights,” says Chimu. “To the naked eye, the Aurora Australis appears as bleached, majestic, ghostly curtains. Point your camera to this phenomenon and, due to the camera’s sensitivity to pick up more color, immediately it will display the greens and, even, pinks and reds of the chemical explosions between the sun’s particles and earth’s atoms, either way, the vision is extraordinary and unforgettable.”

On Saturday evening, Chimu chartered another Qantas Dreamliner, operating as QF1330, and ran an encore performance. That flight followed a similar tracking at Friday night’s flight. But once in the Antarctic zone, the tracking shows a zig-zagging flight path as the Dreamliner chased the lights.

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Saturday night’s Antarctica flight from Sydney. Source: RadarBox.com

Seat swaps and seat swabs, but otherwise your everyday bluechip Qantas service

While not, strictly speaking, a Qantas service, the flight was crewed by Qantas pilots and flight attendants. Passengers received the normal Qantas international grade inflight service. Chimu had astrophotographers onboard to help passengers refine their photography techniques.

The Dreamliners were divided into six zones. Fares started from approximately US$1007 for an economy class seat with a limited view. From there, fares headed north to around US$5,439 for an unobstructed view and a lie-flat seat in a Qantas Business Suite.

During the flight, there was a formal seat swap process within each cabin class. Everyone got a turn in the middle seat blocks and everyone got a turn by the window. Sounds democratic, still, you’d want a good run at the window if you were paying top dollar.

And because nothing is the same anymore, passengers were required to wear face masks throughout the flight. Temperature checks were done before boarding. Disinfecting the seats (not the passengers) was incorporated in the seat swap process and Qantas put into action their now standard upgraded cleaning protocols.

If you are keen, Chimu is running further flights during the 2021 Aurora Australis season. There are forthcoming departures from Brisbane and Perth.

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