Australia’s new airfield in Antarctica | Polarjournal
Here in the Vestfold Hills in East Antarctica, the plans of the Australian Antarctic Division are to build a complete airfield with a paved runway within 20 years. Photo: Australian Antarctic Division

Australia wants to step up its activities in its Antarctic sector. But the state needs new infrastructure, especially for aircraft. For this reason, a new airfield is to be built in East Antarctica to be used all year round.

The Australian Antarctic Division operates a total of 3 stations on the Antarctic continent: Casey, Davis and Mawson. In addition to an icebreaker, aircraft are also used to supply the stations operated all year round. In collaboration with the Australian Air Force RAAF, a specially converted C-130 Hercules and a C-17 Globemaster fly to Australia’s only airfield, the Wilkins Aerodrome, and deliver goods. Passengers are transported to Antarctica in an Airbus A-319 115LR from Hobart in just under 4.5 hours.

The Wilkins Aerodrome is only operating from October to March and is located on a blue ice field about 70 kilometers southeast of Casey station, at about 700 meters above sea level. Normally, 8 people are assigned for the operation of the airfield. The operation is extremely complex, due to the climatic conditions. Rapid weather changes also make it difficult to make landings on the airfield, which has been operating since 2007/08. In summer, the airfield will be closed for about six weeks due to the higher temperatures. In addition, the ice is checked carefully before each landing to prevent accidents. However, the thickness of the ice (> 500 meters) and its relatively slow flow speed allow the installation of containers for operation, according to the Australian Civil Aviation Authority. The infrastructure is the same as that of a normal Australian airfield.

The problem with the supply of the all-year-round stations has always been the short operating time of the Wilkins Aerodrome. In addition, the Australian government stated in 2016 that it would step up its involvement in Antarctica and that an expansion of scientific work in its sector would be accompanied by an expansion of infrastructure. As a result, the search for a new, year-round airfield has gained a new boost. The wishlist for the new airfield was also correspondingly large: year-round operation, paved runway, no ice, close to one of the stations, large and stable enough for large-scale aircraft and expandable for years to come.

Finding a new job for the planned new airfield is not so easy. Numerous prerequisites had to be met first. In the end, the AAD decided to move to a position near Davis station. Video: AAD

After three summer seasons of intensive search essays and scientific investigations, the AAD found the ideal location: about 6 kilometers from the Davis station, on an area of about 410 square kilometers, ice-free, mild weather and with predictable meteorological conditions. In May 2018, the division presented its plans for the fixed runway airfield. The government released an additional €33.5 million 18 months later to continue the project. The project plans have now been re-assessed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, following a notice. In particular, the measures to comply with national environmental regulations, which also apply in Antarctica, will now be evaluated and, if necessary, adapted. Next year, the Australian Antarctic Division plans to present the final plans at the Antarctic Council consultative meeting.

The C-17A Globemaster III is one of the largest transport aircraft. Its range is over 10,300 kilometers and can carry up to 77 tons of material. Therefore, it is perfect for flights to Davis Station. Photo: (C) Glenn Jacobson

The plan for the construction of the airfield initially provides for an expansion of Davis station, where a new pier for transport ships and icebreakers is to be built. This would mean an increase of 130 people in the station staff (including construction workers). In addition to a new pier, a large workshop, various storage rooms, new fuel tanks, storage rooms for materials and waste and an explosives depot have to be built. The construction time for this infrastructure alone is expected to take around seven years. The material trips, which are to be carried out by ice-going ships and icebreaker escorts, will mean up to 6 additional journeys for the new RSV Nuyina for another 10 years. As soon as the infrastructure is ready at Davis, the materials for the construction of the runway are to be transported by ship. 11,500 special cement elements are planned for the runway, each weighing 10 tonnes. This will be used to build the flight foray, taxiway and runway. The elements are prefabricated in Australia and are dispatched then only to be assembled on site. The runway is about 2,700 meters long and can also receive large aircraft such as the Air Force’s C-17A Globemaster III. In addition, all buildings and services necessary for an airfield will be built, including lighting for flights during the dark season. The AAD expects the airfield to be operational by 2040.

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