Which Aircraft Can Land In Antarctica?

As the popularity of remote locations as travel destinations are bound to increase over the coming years, one of the key questions remains how to get there. Normally the domain of research staff and scientists, the unexplored White Continent of Antarctica is drawing the interest of more and more people looking for the next unrivaled experience. But what aircraft could potentially take them there?

What kind of aircraft can land in Antarctica
Antarctica was previously the domain of military aircraft, such as a ski-equipped LC-130H Hercules, but is becoming increasingly accessible with commercial jets. Photo: Getty Images

There is always a new frontier to be explored, some new boundary to push, and, thus far, another remote place to bring into the network of connectivity. The recent travel trends to distant and isolated locations are only set to increase as we come out on the other side of the worst of travel restrictions in the wake of the crisis.

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Fifteen runways for fixed-wing aircraft

Perhaps the most unexplored of the world’s continents, Antarctica, has begun receiving passenger jet charter flights. There are no actual airports in Antarctica. Nor are there any scheduled airline services.

However, 15 out of 30 stations do have runways for fixed-wing aircraft. These are made out of gravel, sea ice, blue ice, or compacted snow and subject to precarious weather changes. Thus, you cannot simply take a commercial jetliner and fly it to the South Pole. Meanwhile, there has been an increase in jetliner traffic of late.

blue-ice runway antarctica
Some blue ice runways now stretch 3,000 meters. Photo: Getty Images

First widebody flight one year ago

From November 2019 to February 2020, a Titan Airways Boeing 767 operated a series of six flights between Cape Town and Novolazarevskaya, a Russian Antarctic research station. The runway there is 3,000 meters, made of blue ice, and signified by black-marker boards.

At the beginning of this year, Titan Airways also flew its all-business configured 757 to the same destination, carrying participants in the World Marathon Challenge. Extended and modified legs had to be fitted to both the aircraft’s landing gear to help them absorb the shock from landing on ice.

Boeing 737s can also make the journey

Also, in November 2019, for the very first time, a Boeing 737 landed in Antarctica. The aircraft was operated by PrivatAir and chartered by the Norwegian Polar Institut. Equipped with a Satcom system ensuring weather updates until the “point of no return,” the plane set off from Cape Town to the Troll Research Station.

“The preparation that has gone into this flight is immense. You have to look at every aspect, consider all scenarios, and prepare meticulously for each and every one. There can be no simple assumptions,” Captain Dennis Kær told Aircontact at the time.

In 2017, another blue ice runway, the one at Union Glacier Camp which is certified by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation or DGAC and operated/maintained by tour company Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE), saw a passenger airliner’s first arrival to the continent. ALE enlisted Icelandic carrier Loftleider Icelandic Airlines to operate a Boeing 757 from Puntas Arenas in Chile on November 26th.

Blue ice runway antarctica
The travel comfort for Antarctic researchers has changed significantly. Photo: Getty Image

A319-115LR from Australia

Australia’s Antarctic Division (AAD) charters an A319-115LR to fly its research and support staff from Hobart to its three stations on the Antarctic mainland. In March this year, the ADD also deployed the jet for a medical rescue mission. This took it all the way to Christchurch, New Zealand.

In 2013, it was widely reported that Air New Zealand intended to operate a test flight with one of its Boeing 767-300s from Auckland to an ice runway near McMurdo Station. However, there is no account of the flight actually taking place. Meanwhile, the Royal New Zealand Air Force flies its smaller cousin, the 757, on several mission support flights per year.

What aircraft Antarctica
The New Zealand Air Force operates a 757 to Antarctica. Photo: Altar78 via Wikimedia Commons

Military aircraft and small turboprops are still the norm

Now, these modified commercial jetliners are far from the norm on the White Continent. Most flights are operated by military aircraft. The most common models used are US Air Force C-130 and C-17 military transport planes, ski-equipped Hercules LC-130H, De Havilland Twin Otters, and Basler BT-67s.

However, as proven by TitanAir and PrivatAir in the past year, landing even widebody passenger airlines in Antarctica is possible. What this means for mass tourism to the South Pole remains to be seen.

Would you fly to Antarctica if it was possible to do so on a comfortable jetliner rather than a military transport plane? Have you been? Let us know in the comments.