“Some of the relationships between other government departments were regulatory, but others were service providers. Early on, by meeting with each of the departments and being open with communication, we were able to establish what their needs and their drivers were. Being mindful of those enabled us to work fairly collaboratively together.
“The test of those relationships was when departments help by thinking ahead for you, saying ‘this could be an issue for you in the future and this is the way you might want to deal with it’, rather than getting to that hurdle six months down the track and having to react.”
For Clark, even the most mundane things required an injection of enthusiasm. Again, good communication paid dividends right down the line.
“Working on a project in a physically isolated environment, it’s important to have good communication and make sure that every person in the project, no matter what their role, knows why their role is vitally important and leads to the overall aim; even the mechanic fixing the bulldozer that pulls the rollers that proof and certify the runway to enable the plane to land,” he emphasises. “The key challenge is to ensure those connections between the smallest of tasks, right through to the overall intent of why we do it.”
It was these solid relationships that enabled the runway to be completed in less than two years, a remarkable achievement considering the difficulty of the project and Australia’s lack of experience with regard to building ice runways. The AAD hired George Blaisdell, an ice runway specialist from the US. Clark adds other international help also moved the project along. “The other Antarctic countries were very supportive and we were able to lever off some of their experiences and incorporate some of their knowledge into the construction of the runway and the operation of the air service.”
A means to an end
The Wilkins Runway is just the beginning of a larger Antarctic program that will eventually see scientists conveyed to specific stations to complete their work. The nearest outcrop to the runway is 70 kilometres away at Casey Station, with Davis and Mawson Stations much further west. The stations are equipped to support field investigation, including biology, meteorology, marine studies and specialist environmental work.
“The real measure of success will be when we are able to complete high priority science in key areas to answer key questions,” says Clark. “Some of that may take a few years to achieve from a project outcome point of view. As soon as we start moving people when they want to go to Antarctica at the time they want to go and bring them back, that’s success from an output point of view. In a sense, the airlink is just a means to an end.”
The runway will operate in the summer period, from November to early February, which Clark hopes they will expand to operate from October to March in the coming years. For now, the ground staff are getting used to the constant maintenance required to keep the runway to a standard for commercial jet aircraft.
“It will be an ongoing activity to maintain the runway,” he says. “Like any operation to Antarctica it will be heavily impacted by the weather. From what we understand from other countries operating runways, they’re subject to all the conditions of Antarctica: temperature, wind or snow.”
As for things he would change on the project, Clark wryly notes “more resources would always be nice”, but is happy that the project reached some fairly lofty ambitions. “The time it takes to build up the corporate expertise to construct runways in Antarctica takes longer than the actual building,” he explains. “We were working to timelines that were extremely ambitious, that had never been attempted before, and it put a lot of pressure on the project deliverables.”
Surprisingly, soaring above the pale landscape on that Sunday evening and seeing the runway for the first time did have subsequent drawbacks. “This is the best fun job you can have,” says Clark. “People working on the project enjoy it and that’s an important aspect of any work, you have to make work enjoyable and exciting. The issue now is trying to find something just as interesting.”