August 12, 2020

See Ice at Altitude: Scenic Flights to Antarctica

There's history and grandeur aplenty way above Antarctica. Roderick Eime, takes to the wing for a rare perspective of the southernmost continent.

“The panorama was magnificent – the jagged mountains of black and green rock and glittering snow slopes of Trinity (peninsula) towering besides, above us the clear sky, below us blue-black water and icebergs – everything frozen and still, black and blue-black and black-green and glittering white” – Captain Sir George Hubert Wilkins, Australian polar aviation pioneer

These words could have been uttered by any modern airborne explorer of the Antarctic, flying low over the frozen wilderness of the great southern land.

For decades now, explorers and scientists have been flying to Antarctica on resupply missions, remote field studies and even aerial mapping. Any reader could be forgiven for thinking these observations came from one of these recent flights aboard a turboprop C-130 Hercules or 747, but no. In 1928, an almost forgotten Adelaide-born explorer and aviator, Sir Hubert Wilkins, made these remarks as he and pilot Ben Eielson created history. They were the first to successfully deploy an aircraft in Antarctica, narrowly pipping the glory-seeking US Admiral Richard Byrd, and made numerous important discoveries including determining that Graham Land (the Antarctic Peninsula) was not an island, but attached to the vast southern continent.

Sure, visitors to Deception Island off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula can visit the site of Wilkins’s runway where these history-making flights took place and try to imagine the raw conditions under which then state-of-the-art explorations were taking place. Today, modern adventure seekers can now get aboard a specially chartered Qantas 747 and gaze longingly down on these same icy wastes laid out before them.

Millionaire publisher, Randolph Hearst, paid Wilkins $25,000 for the story – more than $330,000 in today’s money. For as little as AU$1200, you can experience something similar, flying aboard a giant Boeing 747 chartered especially for the purpose by Melbourne travel entrepreneur, Phil Asker. You'll enjoy many luxuries only dreamed of by pioneering aviators like pressurised cabins, meal service, flushing toilets and a myriad safety and state-of-the-art navigational aids.

Phil and the Captain's Choice team operate a specially formed business unit for these trips called, predictably enough, Antarctica Flights. Since 1994, and beginning with just one experimental charter, the concept has taken off like wildfire with five departures now offered, one each from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane. The Sydney New Year's Eve departure, complete with jazz band, is certainly the pick of the pack.

In the early days of aerial exploration, these risky expeditions were fraught with all manner of dangers. Now, with modern satellite navigation, radar and jet-powered aircraft, the most dangerous thing you will do is take a taxi to the airport. Despite several well-publicised events, air travel is still among the safest forms of transport anywhere – significantly less hazardous than crossing the road or riding a bicycle.

Our journey began, not in some windswept hut on a foreboding, snow-encrusted shore, but in the Qantas Club lounge toasting our imminent adventure over the frozen continent, the planet's coldest and driest landscape bar none.

Volcanic Mt Erebus still smouldering (RE) 

The 12-hour, 10,000km return journey spends a generous three to four hours over the Ross Sea region, an area seldom visited by tourists of any sort, air- or seaborne. The first glimpses of this frozen land are heralded by increasingly dense formations of ice. Starting with solitary icebergs slowly migrating north toward oblivion, these are followed by motley fleets of floating ice. Some 'vessels' just large enough to transport a few penguins while others deserve their own postcode.

Our first much-anticipated sighting of land consists of a few scattered peaks of raw and hostile rock jutting through a dense low cloud cover indicating the Admiralty, Transantarctic and Queen Maud Mountains which form a high barrier to the west of the giant Ross Ice Shelf.

As we fly further inland toward the South Pole, the cloud cover slowly abates revealing massive glaciers extruding out from between the mountains toward the sea. Somewhere beneath us is Cape Adare, the famous landing and jumping-off point for so many Antarctic missions of the early 20th Century. This is the domain of Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen and we try – hopelessly – to imagine what it must have been like to haul sledges and packs over the murderous crevasses and treacherous icefields as these men fought the elements and their own wills in the quest for the South Pole.

We sit transfixed at our windows watching the rolling panorama beneath us. Some ogle the massive and unimaginable geological formations, others ponder the travails of these early explorers, while the rest dream and conjure shapes within the patterns of sea ice, like gigantic frosted water lilies on a pond that stretches to forever. A sea that many, including the multinational Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, believe should become a protected reserve.

Others, including New Zealand, want to expand commercial fishing into the region. Why? Because the huge, 500 million sq km Ross Sea basin contains one of the last relatively undisturbed, unpolluted and unexploited oceanic regions. Valuable toothfish populations and 95 other profitable species may extend under the vast permanent sheet hundreds of metres thick. At least 10 mammal species, half a dozen species of birds and over 1,000 invertebrate species also exist in the immediate area. In 2007, a monster 500kg squid was captured in the Ross Sea. Makes you wonder what else lurks in those mysterious depths.

In a fitting departure, we overfly several of the bases that dot the shore including the expansive McMurdo US base and its attendant airfield, scraped out on the ice with at least three C-130 Hercules and other aircraft ready for action. NZ's Scott base is nearby and rather insignificant by comparison. A telling reminder that, despite the isolation, man's hand is poised to make another critical decision about the future of this highly sensitive and most beautiful part of our planet.

The writer flew as a guest of Captain's Choice.

The story was originally published in Let's Travel Magazine - Issue 34

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