The Flight that changed Antarctic Aviation

In 1987, Adventure Network International (ANI) made history by landing a privately operated wheeled aircraft in Antarctica.

On November 21, 1987, Captain Jim Smith landed a Douglas DC-4 on a blue-ice airfield at Patriot Hills in the Ellsworth Mountains. This ground-breaking achievement changed the face of aviation in Antarctica, and paved the way for direct flights from Punta Arenas in Chile without the need for refuelling stops along the way.

Pioneering Flights

The very first wheeled aircraft to land at Patriot Hills was a De Haviland Twin Otter on December 4, 1986. The pilot, Giles Kershaw, had to land at several points on the Antarctic Peninsula during the flight south to refuel. Onboard the Twin Otter was Glaciologist Dr Charles Swithinbank, former Head of Earth Sciences at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). Swithinbank had been charged by ANI with the responsibility of finding a suitable blue-ice runway on which larger, conventional commercial aircraft could land. He recalls his first impressions back in the 1980s of Patriot Hills.

“A bleaker place would be hard to imagine. The wind was cutting through our clothing. A few small bundles at our feet were all that stood between us and encroaching hypothermia. We pitched our tiny mountain dome tent but tent pegs were useless because the surface was like concrete. We laboriously screwed ice screws into the ground, one by one, and attached the guy ropes. All my life I had enjoyed the luxury of pyramid tents that felt safe in almost any wind. Now I was to live in a survival tent made for backpacking mountaineers who did not seek comfort.”

Several days of  surveying revealed a suitable landing strip and the following season, the DC-4 made its historic first flight.

The DC-4 aircraft was replaced in 1989 by a DC-6 which, in turn, was replaced by a Lockheed Hercules L-382 in 1993. Since 2000, an Ilyushin 76 TD has flown passengers and cargo from Punta Arenas to Antarctica. Twin Otter and Basler BT-67 – a DC-3 conversion – ski-aircraft are used for flights within the Antarctic interior.

Another Ice Runway

In 2003, ANI was purchased by Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE). ALE opened a new blue-ice runway at Union Glacier in November 2010, after several years of research and data analysis. The new into-wind runway allows a more predictable flight schedule with less likelihood of delays due to weather conditions, as well as enhanced logistic support in Antarctica. Patriot Hills remains ALE’s secondary runway in Antarctica.

A quarter of a century after the first DC-4 flight, ALE remains the most experienced and capable private operator in the interior of Antarctica, having carried thousands of passengers to the region and supported almost every expedition that has crossed the continent.

Modern-day adventure seekers still have to endure temperatures as low as -30°C ( 22°F) and a wind chill factor that can plummet to -40°C (-40°F). But if they choose, they are now able to stay in relative comfort at Union Glacier, ALE’s spacious basecamp, and can choose from a wide selection of Antarctic Experiences ranging from gentle exploration to extremely strenuous expeditions.

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