It has been more than 50 years since Antarctic aviator Hubert Wilkins’ last trip to the frozen continent, but his legacy lives on in an ambitious airlink project.
On a crisp Sunday evening in December 2007, an Airbus A319 landed safely at its destination on the four-kilometre Wilkins Runway. The safe landing of an aircraft is hardly a remarkable feat in this age of jetsetting, except for the fact that the Wilkins Runway is located in Antarctica, and is carved out of a glacier.
The first landing on the Wilkins Runway—named after the renowned Antarctic aviator—heralds the start of a new ice age, one where passengers can reach Antarctica from Australia in a matter of hours by air, instead of weeks by ship. The implications are at once political, scientific and public—a tough ask for most projects, but doubly so for one in such an extreme environment.
Australia claims 42 percent of Antarctica, so politically must be seen to value that share and use it productively by giving it resources. “There has been a strong demand for decades from scientists to have improved access to the continent,” explains Charlton Clark, manager of the Antarctic Airlink Project. “That’s not just so they can get from one place to another quickly, it’s so we can offer a logistics system, nationally and internationally, that’s competitive and attracts the world’s best scientists.
“We have a combination of a scientific need and a government policy need, which requires that science to answer policy questions in terms of the role of Antarctica in the global climate system, on other nations and the impacts of weather systems as a discipline in itself.”
The concept of an airlink to Antarctica was considered decades ago but eventually rejected as too difficult. Clark says that establishing a consistent message to government emphasising the importance of Australia’s relationship to Antarctica—therefore highlighting the requirement for an effective logistics system to support work on the continent—became one of the driving factors in getting the project off the ground.
“We deliberately made a decision at the beginning to include issues management right at the forefront. We asked ourselves ‘what are the barriers to this project getting up? What are the key elements that, without that element occurring, the project would fail?’ After a range of analysis we answered ‘maintaining political will to implement the airlink’,” he reports. “To maintain political will we can’t be controversial because we lose the support of the politicians and the broader community and we won’t have a project.”
To avoid controversy, the Antarctic Airlink Division (AAD) needed to steer clear of wildlife colonies that inevitably inhabited the three percent of land the continent provides. Other countries had blasted rock to build their runways, destroying significant fauna populations. Building a runway elsewhere on Antarctica’s 97-percent ice mass was the only feasible option to maintain project support. At 700 metres above sea level, the Wilkins site was chosen to ensure the ice stayed intact over summer.
Clark recalls that’s when the regulatory side of the aviation project became interesting. “A lot of the regulatory environment we operated in didn’t have Antarctica in its context in legislation, so that threw up a number of challenges along the way.”
In addition to levelling the area and finding suitable markers to outline the runway, the weather became a point of contention, as did the crucial issue of the glacier moving at about 12 metres per year.
The solution was to address unique issues by bringing key stakeholders from other government departments to the site. “We found providing that context really assisted later on down the track, so it was a really worthwhile investment,” notes Clark.
Happily, Wilkins Runway is now a certified aerodrome, merely requiring pavement tests to ensure the landing surface meets hardness, friction and density standards before an aircraft lands.
Buy-in, fly out
Clark is adamant that harnessing enthusiasm, while keeping controversy at bay, was a significant factor in building the relationships that made the project possible. “People were generally interested in Antarctica and it’s amazing to build a runway in Antarctica out of ice and establish an air service to it. When people get a feeling to be part of that vision, it makes a lot of the other aspects of the work easier to deal with—it’s a shared vision.”
Sharing became a matter of understanding which department needed to contribute to the airlink. “We worked closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Customs, Quarantine, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), Air Services Australia, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, Emergency Management Australia, then a whole range of external stakeholders, mainly the other Antarctic Treaty nations,” lists Clark.