Diverse Destinations: Private Flying into Antarctica

Private aviation is all about access and convenience. The capabilities of modern business aircraft enable owners to leapfrog continents and oceans while utilizing tens of thousands of smaller airports in every corner of the globe. Indeed, the only limit at play the majority of the time is one’s imagination.

Antarctica is one location where business jet crews must negotiate a truly extreme range of operational concerns. At Wolf’s Fang Runway, located approximately 100 miles inland from the Atlantic coast, specially trained crews maintain a blue ice runway that can accept anything from tundra-optimized turboprop ski planes to 300-passenger, four-engine airliners. To safely operate into and out of this location, four primary elements must be brought into alignment; aircraft, flight crew, meteorological conditions, and the airport itself.

Traffic congestion isn’t typically a concern in Antarctica, but many other unique challenges await visiting aircraft
In Antarctica, ground transportation options are well-suited to the challenging environment.

When envisioning these brutal conditions, an ultra-luxurious Gulfstream might not seem like an appropriate aircraft for the mission. These jets, after all, are most commonly seen frequenting perfectly manicured ramps at places like Nice, Aspen, and Seychelles. Places where some of the most pressing operational concerns revolve around wine selection and catering. The notion of taking a Gulfstream G650 into the depths of Antarctica might seem akin to driving one’s Bentley up the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska for dinner.

As it happens, most modern business jets incorporate engineering that elevates their technical capability to levels that might even exceed their opulence. Equipped with the industry’s most advanced avionics, pilots can accurately monitor their position in areas where compasses struggle to function and utilize vertical navigation at destinations lacking instrument approaches. But perhaps more importantly, the long-range types such as Gulfstreams have the capability to tanker fuel to and from remote destinations.

Tankering fuel – bringing extra fuel along to avoid having to take more on elsewhere – is critical in this remote destination. While a limited amount is available at Wolf’s Fang, the airport must bring it in via ship and then overland across glaciers. Visiting aircraft, therefore, bring enough fuel to fly both the 5-hour outbound and 5-hour return legs without having to refuel.  

From a pilot’s perspective, flying into Antarctica is all about familiarization and preparation. One G650 captain who recently flew the trip first observed an arrival and departure from the jumpseat of an Airbus A340, an airliner that regularly makes the trip to transport tourists and support research operations. While the actual approach and landing are not overly demanding, learning the unique procedures that apply to Antarctica operations is critical.

A view of Wolf’s Fang from the cockpit while on approach.

In addition to the unique procedures, Antarctica presents special meteorological conditions and limitations. In the case of Wolf’s Fang, visiting aircraft can’t even depart their origin airport unless the local forecast calls for ceilings of 5,000 feet or higher, visibility greater than 6 miles, and a maximum crosswind of 10 knots. Over the years, many flights have had to be canceled due to unfavorable conditions at Wolf’s Fang.

The Earth’s weather isn’t the only concern. Pilots visiting Antarctica must also familiarize themselves with space weather. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines space weather as the variations in the space environment between the sun and Earth that impact various systems and technologies. Things like solar flares and geomagnetic storms can have a more significant effect at high latitudes. While pilots needn’t necessarily become experts on the topic, they must monitor space weather conditions to become aware of how conditions might affect things like radio reception.

Private Flying into Antarctica
A space weather condition report from the NOAA, alerting flight crews to potential radio communication blackouts.

Finally, operations personnel must adequately prepare the airport to accept visiting aircraft. The 9,000-foot-long ice runway, for example, must be grooved for traction. While low temperatures in-season are typically not much lower than the extremes of the upper Midwest US, the local temperature must not exceed -4ºC (24.8ºF). Any warmer than this, a layer of moisture between the blue ice foundation and the compacted snow and ice on top becomes unacceptably slick. 

Unlike most airports, the runway at Wolf’s Fang is built atop flowing glacier ice and is thus constantly moving. Accordingly, the airport must continuously update the runway coordinates to account for the ever-changing location. The ice flow is significant, causing the runway to drift approximately 15 miles (24 km) annually. 

As is often the case in aviation, knowledge, proficiency, and meticulous preparation ensure safe operations, even in the most challenging environments at the bottom of the earth.  

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