Flights to Antarctica: What aircraft fly there and where they land

When we say aviation is a global business, we mean it. Even Antarctica — an ice desert larger than the U.S. and Mexico combined that has hardly any permanent residents — sees a notable amount of air activity.

While there are no scheduled commercial air services linking the southernmost continent to the rest of the world (nor are there paved runways), air traffic is still constant. Flights to this region mostly consist of military aircraft or civilian airplanes chartered by governments, research organizations and tourist operators.

Blue ice landing strips are built in areas where no fresh snow accumulates. The result is a naturally hardened, smooth surface of very dense ice suitable for aircraft to land on.

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A look at the Dronning Maud Land Air Network Project

The Dronning Maud Land Air Network Project is a joint effort through which 11 nations that have a presence in the Dronning Maud Land region of Antarctica pool their airlift resources in order to save costs and operate in a coordinated manner. (Participating countries are Belgium, Finland, Germany, India, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia, South Africa, Sweden and the United Kingdom.)

DROMLAN is based at the Norwegian-run Troll research station, and the blue ice runway at this station is, perhaps, one of the closest things Antarctica has to an air hub.

Flights from Cape Town International Airport (CPT) in South Africa operate through this project — which uses a varied mix of air assets including Ilyushin Il-76s, C-130 Hercules and P-3 Orion. From Troll, ski-fitted Basler BT-67 aircraft keep vital links open to research stations located farther inland.

Troll research station is not open to tourists, but other airfields in Antarctica are.

An Italian Air Force Hercules C-130 prepares to land near the Italian Mario Zucchelli permanent research station in Antarctica. VITTORIANO RASTELLI/GETTY IMAGES

Other airfields on the frozen continent

During the southern summer season, it is possible to take one of the several charter flights operated by Chilean airline Aerovías DAP to Antarctica. Flights depart from Punta Arenas Presidente Carlos Ibáñez del Campo International Airport (PUQ) in southern Chile and arrive at Teniente R. Marsh Airport (TNM), the northernmost airport in Antarctica. The location of this gravel-runway airport, on King George Island, makes it a transfer point for tourists boarding cruises that sail into Antarctic waters.

Or, if you can spare between $30,000 and $200,000 for a polar experience, luxury tour operator White Desert will fly you — in the comfort of a Gulfstream G550 executive jet — from Cape Town to the firm’s very own blue ice airfield, Wolf’s Fang Runway, in Antarctica.

Wolf’s Fang Runway is also capable of handling large airliners. During the last southern summer season, the runway even welcomed an Airbus A340-300, operated by Portuguese charter airline Hi Fly, that was full of scientists and tourists.

From Wolf’s Fang Runway it is possible to fly onward — on a Basler BT-67 — to the Whichaway Oasis eco-camp, where six bubble-like pods provide high-end accommodation.

Another specialized tour operator, Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions, operates a similar facility at Union Glacier airfield (UGL). This blue ice runway receives direct flights from Punta Arenas, usually on Ilyushin Il-76s (although other types of aircraft visit on occasion). Like Wolf’s Fang Runway, specialized operators, such as Borek Air, fly people to other forward bases on ski-fitted DHC-6 Twin Otters and Baslers.

Wilkins Airfield — named for the Australian pilot Sir Hubert Wilkins, who was the first to fly over Antarctica in 1928 — is another blue ice runway that sees long-haul services. Skytraders, a private Australian operator, provides air services to and from Wilkins Airfield.

In addition to a locally based, ski-fitted CASA C-212 Aviocar, Skytraders operates an Airbus A319 jet directly from Hobart, in Tasmania. When it was necessary, this aircraft also visited other locations in Antarctica, such as the sea ice runway at Italian research station Zucchelli.

The Australian government even considered building a 2,700-long concrete runway at Davis Research Station, but it ditched the idea last year, mainly for environmental reasons.

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) also has its own locally based air fleet. It operates a fleet of five bright red turboprop aircraft out of Rothera Air Facility, Havilland Twin Otters and Havilland Dash-7. BAS also operates flights from Rothera to Port Stanley, in the Falkland Islands — the closest British territory to Antarctica.

Where the military lands in Antarctica

In the case of U.S. research stations, the U.S. Air Force plays a prominent role in flying out of New Zealand to support the U.S. Antarctic Program.

Through what is known as “Operation Deep Freeze,” American cargo aircraft fly regularly between Christchurch, New Zealand, and Antarctica’s Phoenix Runway — close to the continent’s largest settlement, McMurdo Station.

Phoenix Runway, which was completed in 2016 to replace an older facility, is made of snow so tightly packed that it can withstand the landings of heavy-wheeled aircraft like the USAF Boeing C-17 Globemaster III.

Williams Field, another snowy runway near McMurdo, offers a place for ski-equipped aircraft to land. Examples of these types of aircraft include the New York Air National Guard LC-130s, as well as the ubiquitous Baslers and Twin Otters that link to other remote airfields throughout the continent.

Bottom line

Even though no commercial flights operate to Antarctica, the continent still sees plenty of air traffic.

Whether you’re involved in research or you want to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to visit Antarctica on a vacation, this story should give you a sense of what kind of plane you might take and how your plane will land.

Featured photo courtesy of Hi Fly.