DALLAS: Airways sat down with none other than Olov Lindström, Fleet Chief Pilot of Norse Atlantic Airways (N0), to discuss the airline’s groundbreaking Boeing 787 Antarctica touchdown.
It was really interesting to chat with Captain Lindström. For those who might not know too much about the flight, it took place in the middle of November. N0 was contracted by AirContact, the world´s largest and leading air broker.
This flight was operated on behalf of the Norwegian Polar Institute. Now, N0 is based in Scandinavia and is operating right at the other end of the world. It positioned its aircraft down to Cape Town and was taking cargo and personnel to Troll Airfield, an airstrip located 6.8 kilometers (4.2 mi) from the research station Troll on Princess Martha Coast in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica.
Owned and operated by the Norwegian Polar Institute, it consists of a 3,300-by-100-metre (10,830 by 330 ft) runway on glacial blue ice on the Antarctic ice sheet.
Chris Smith was at the helm for the interview. It was really interesting to speak to Captain Lindström and learn more about the planning that made the trip such a success.
Chris Smith: I’ve got the privilege of speaking today to Captain Olav Lindström. He’s the Fleet Chief Pilot from Norse Atlantic Airways, and some of our listeners and our readers at Airways may remember that in the middle of November, Norse Atlantic Airways flew the first 787 to Antarctica. By no means an easy feat.
Captain Lindström was actually in command of that very memorable trip, and he’s here today to give us a bit of a behind-the-scenes look at what went on during that planning process. I think one of the reasons why I thought it’d be really good to speak to you today, Captain Lindström, is that there will be several listeners who probably underestimate the sheer amount of planning that had to go into making this trip such a success.
So hopefully you can give us a bit of a better understanding of what went on. But rather than me, tell our listeners a little bit of background as to why you flew there and what you were flying. Why don’t you take a moment to enlighten some of our listeners who might not know very much about the trip?
So what were you flying? Why were you flying there, and could you give us a bit of an overview of the flights?
Captain Lindström: Sure. Absolutely. Thank you for having me here. It’s great to be there. So, what we did was fly the first Boeing 787 to Antarctica to a Norwegian airfield called Troll Airfield, which is next to the Norwegian Research Station down there, which is called Troll Station.
This airfield has received smaller airplanes in the past, but we were the largest ones to land there so far. That’s what happened on November 15th. However, the planning started much earlier than that. When we got the word, we had an initial meeting with the Norwegian Polar Institute in March 2023, where they asked us if this was something that we could do.
We said that probably it’s going to require quite a bit of preparation and quite a bit of research to see what’s possible in terms of flying to a landing on an ice runway. It’s a glacier, so we would be landing on ice, and it would be the first 787 to land on a glacier and probably the first one to land on an ice runway as well.
So that was the start of it, and it was eight months before that, and a large portion of these eight months were spent on quite detailed planning, as you can imagine.
I think we’ll probably struggle to touch the tip of the iceberg to use such an expression, but we’ll give it a go! You mentioned that you were told several months in advance that this trip was likely to happen. So whenever you were first notified, just cast your mind back, and what did you think were going to be the biggest challenges from a flight operations perspective from the outset?
I guess, in a way, that was one of the questions we asked ourselves too. When you get a request for a flight that is so different from what we normally do, one of the questions is: Where do we begin in this planning? Fortunately, the Norwegian Polar Institute was great and helped us out, and they have had other operators fly there before.
And some of the challenges that they presented us with were a good starting point. One of them being the glacier, the ice, strong enough to land on. That was a good starting point. If it wasn’t, then there was no point in continuing with the project. There’s been quite a lot of research on landing on ice runways dating back to the 1950s.
So there is quite a lot of research material and quite a lot of studies that have been done. But, of course, nothing had been done on a 787 in particular. So we sat down and wrote a research paper on the bearing strength of glacier runways for the Boeing 787, and we went down to the basics here by looking at the tire footprint of the 787 and the weight distribution.
And we did the math on that from the very ground up. Normally, when you assess non-bearing strength, you use a system called PCN ACN, which is Pavement Classification Number and (Aircraft Classification Number), and you just compare that number with the number of the aircraft and call it a day. But that system is made for tarmac runways that have a top layer and a subgrade, so it doesn’t apply at all to ice. When we finished that study, we had it reviewed by the Norwegian Civil Aviation Authority and some engineers at Boeing as well. There is quite a bit of margin, and I think the strength is 20 times more than what was needed.
So there was no issue at all with the bearing strength. But that type of study sort of pointed out what we had to do. We couldn’t take anything for granted because you’re flying to a place that is completely new for this type of aircraft. So we had to go into detail on everything.
We involved the Norwegian Civil Aviation Authority from the starting point as well, telling them this is what we plan to do and this is how we plan to prepare to do so. We wanted to have a complete and open conversation with the aviation authority so that there were no surprises before the flights. They don’t give approval, but they give a sort of no objection, and that’s what we were looking for.
Interesting, and you mentioned that other operators had flown to the same location beforehand. Did you link up with them to try and get any past experiences and any wisdom, or did you keep the research and the planning solely within the entities that you’ve already mentioned?
No, we relied quite a bit on previous operators, and it’s when this is presented with the videos of the landings that it looks like we’re pioneers here. But we were indeed standing on the shoulders of the people who have been there before. We had interviews with various pilots who have had years and even decades of experience flying in Antarctica.
About two to three weeks before the flight, I joined a crew flying a Falcon 7X down there, just on the jumpseat. I saw how they did it and got a feel for what the airfield looked like and what the challenges were. And to also sort of do an audit on the facilities that are available down there too.
Fascinating stuff. As a Norwegian operator and because you’re personally Swedish, you’re used to flying in cold conditions. But tell us what differences there are with flying in Antarctica versus flying in the north of Scandinavia in the middle of winter.
There are some similarities and quite a few differences. I would say if you do a normal landing, it’s pretty much the same as landing on an icy runway in Scandinavia, and I’ve landed on runways with worse braking action than what we had at the airfield at Troll Airfield! They used the same equipment to measure the braking action, and we had historical data going back 10 years for the airfield, and they reported the latest readings just an hour before we landed.
The braking action is quite good. It’s similar to what you have on a wet runway. So for that part, there was not so much of a challenge. But weather forecasting is indeed a challenge. We have enough fuel when we take off from Cape Town, the last port of call before we land at Troll Airfield.
So we have enough fuel to fly down to Troll Airfield and fly back again. So if we arrive down there and we realize the weather is not good enough, we could just fly back to Cape Town. That’s sort of part of the business case for flying a 787 down there. We can bring a lot of cargo. We can bring a lot of bulky cargo.
We can get back to that later on. But we can also fly down there, and we don’t have to refuel. Because fueling in Antarctica is extremely expensive. The fuel comes in on a ship, and then it’s transported over the ice with snowmobiles. So we’re looking at a cost of, like, US$10 per kilo. So that was a big part of the business case for flying a 787 down there.
Now, a good side effect of that is that we can fly down there, hold for a while, see what the weather is like, and come back. But, as you can imagine, that’s quite costly. You don’t fly down there just to realize that we can’t land and come back. So the weather forecasting started about a week before we had dedicated calls with a weather forecast company called Storm Geo.
We compared their data with something called AMPS. If you Google AMPS Antarctica, you’ll get that website. That’s the American weather model forecast for Antarctica. So the weather is rough down there. It is extremely rough at times! They say their wind meters, for example, are going up to 99 meters per second, and it’s quite common that it goes to 99. So it’s probably more than that. The weather can change quickly and it behaves in ways that it doesn’t in other parts of the world.
So we spent a lot of time together with the weather forecasters to ensure that at the time we were planning to arrive, there was going to be good weather, and we needed quite good weather. But we expected from the start that we’d have a delay. They say about 50 percent of all planned flights to Antarctica, or at least to Troll Airfield, will be delayed due to weather, and we had a delay of about 17 hours.
And that was expected. The Polar Institute said to take your time; we don’t want you to fly down in marginal weather. So we waited, and we could do a five-day forecast in Oslo and delay our flight down to Cape Town. Once in Cape Town, we had a forecast 12 hours before departure and then six hours before. Then into the very last, you know, before starting the engines was the last time I called the weather forecaster.
Of course, as you get closer to the departure time, the decision to cancel or delay becomes more and more challenging. You know that before engines start, if you have to delay at that point, you will probably, well, spoil the catering! But we also had one and a half tonnes of food supplies on board, and a portion of that might get spoiled too.
But if you take off and you’re flying and you have to come back, well, that’s a much bigger cost. So I would say that in terms of what’s different about landing in winter weather in Scandinavia, that was probably the major difference.
That’s interesting. You described a scenario where you had so much flexibility with your planning, and I think I thought the dates were probably fixed and set in stone, so I’m sure many listeners might have thought the same as well. But it’s really quite interesting to learn that, and correct me if I’m wrong, but you were basically only leaving Oslo whenever you knew there was a window of opportunity for you to get all the way down and all the way back to Cape Town without having any weather interruptions. Is that correct?
That’s correct. Yeah, we had the aircraft for at least two weeks, and from the outset, it was decided and made clear to everyone involved that we would not depart Oslo or Cape Town unless we were 100 percent certain that the weather was acceptable.
So I guess for yourself and your colleagues, there was maybe a little bit of time sitting at home, waiting for the green light, whenever the weather presented that window of opportunity. But just before we move on, there’s one other thing I’d just like to mention, because you referred back to your days of flying in much poorer weather and in terms of maybe landing on runway conditions that are certainly much poorer than what you landed at down in Troll. I know that in Scandinavia, it’s quite common, and correct me if I’m wrong, but they’ll roll the snow on the runway and put sand down to give you some sort of breaking coefficient. But how did that compare with landing on sheet ice?
So what they do is prepare the runway beforehand, and up close, it looks quite a bit like a ski slope. So it’s not ice directly; there is ice, but on top of it, there’s maybe an inch or so of sort of grated ice mixed with snow. That is the best way to prepare the runway or an ice runway for the ideal braking action. It’s an interesting perspective when you land, and that’s also different. As you know, a wider runway has a different perspective on touchdown. And this runway is cleared to about 90 meters, 100 meters wide.
On top of it, the sort of place where you land is not in the center of that cleared area; it’s sort of slightly to the side. So touchdown is interesting. It feels like you’re landing on the left side of the runway, but it’s still in the center.
The touchdown is like any other touchdown. But once you’re down, because the whole glacier is moving and it’s on top of a rocky surface, even though that surface is 700 meters below, the ice is not perfectly smooth. It’s quite bumpy once you’re down, and it’s all within the limits, of course, but it’s not a smooth runway as such, even if it looks quite smooth when you look down the runway.
The other different thing is that, as I said, they clear about a 90-meter-wide strip on the ice there. Then they put up markers, which are just these flags that you see on downhill ski races. When you’re on base (leg) before turning final, it is very difficult to see where the airfield is because we spent hours and hours studying pictures, maps and charts, and you know it’s going to be there. But looking at it, you can barely see it. And then, just as you turn final, it’s only right there in front of you, and then it’s not a problem.
So here’s where, in the weather brief, we look at not just visibility and cloud base but also contrast and horizon. We check the horizon so that when you flare, you have a horizon in front of you. If there’s a poor horizon with ice, a snowy sky, and clouds all looking the same, it just blurs together, which gives you no horizon on touchdown.
That’s what you want to avoid, so you’re looking for a good horizon. But you also look for good contrast. If you have certain types of cloud layers, you get no shadows. And when you have no shadows, it becomes very difficult to make out where the airfield is going to be.
With a blue sky or a clear sky, you have, of course, millions of tiny little shadows that make the airfield stand out much more. So, that’s something that’s in this weather report, which you normally don’t see in other types of weather reports.
Fascinating! You’ve already talked about some of the complications with landing, but for those listeners who might not appreciate landing an aircraft in the last few feet, it’s very much a visual maneuver unless you’re landing in low visibility. But when you’re landing on a tarmac runway, you’ve got the grass around; you’ve got the visual characteristics of the runway, which you can use to gauge how high you are and what your rate of descent is, but you don’t have those same visual cues. So flaring and adjusting the rate of descent for touchdown must be quite challenging because I’m assuming you just don’t have the same visual cues that you normally would have. How did you handle that?
That is indeed something that we spent quite a bit of time talking about, and we ran some simulator sessions, but of course, the simulator is not going to be the same. How do we handle this flare? We practiced beforehand in the simulator as well to do the flare without the radio altimeter. In an airliner, the aircraft counts down and the radio altimeter counts down, so that helps a lot. But of course, we weren’t 100 percent certain that the radio altimeter was going to be reliable on ice.
A lot of the planning was talking about what if the radio altimeter doesn’t work, what if, and so on. Even earlier on, during the approach, we had a Heads-Up Display (HUD) in the 787, which is extremely helpful for this type of landing because there’s no vertical guidance and there’s no ILS (Instrument Landing System). There is also no PAPI (Precision Approach Path Indicator). Well, there is a PAPI, but it’s almost impossible to see in the bright light. So we spent quite a bit of time going back to old school, judging your approach path the way you do in a Cessna or a smaller airplane when you land on an airfield without any vertical guidance.
We did a lot of that in the simulator. I think all this together sort of helped with that. Then, of course, as always, when landing on a slippery runway or a runway where you don’t know exactly what the braking action is going to be, you don’t aim for a smooth landing. You aim for a firm landing.
We knew that as long as we did some sort of flare here and didn’t overdo it, it was going to be no problem. There were a lot of adjustments in the very last 30 to 20 feet. There’s a bit of a slope on the runway. It’s about a 1% slope. So it’s uphill, and I think you can see in the video that we made a few last-second adjustments so that we did not bring it down too hard. But altogether, it was one of the things that we spent quite a bit of time talking about before the flights.
You’ve already touched on simulators and how you use simulator sessions to help prepare you. But can you tell us about any other training that you did?
Just briefly on the simulator training, what we did as well was that, from the outset, we wanted to make sure that what we did here was as close to our normal operation as possible. We knew that it would not be normal at the end of the day; we were flying to Antarctica, but the more familiar procedures and systems we could use, the better the starting point.
So we had Jeppesen, our chart provider, tailor-make charts for us. The Polar Institute has some sort of basic RNAV (Area Navigation Systems) approach procedures, and we had charts made from that. It’s quite interesting because everything moves; it’s a glacier, so these charts are dated and only valid for November 2023. So if we go there again, we’re going to have to remake them with new positions. Now we can prepare in the simulator with those charts. In addition to that, we also trained the crew in polar survival training.
You depart from Cape Town, and you remain in the Cape Town FIR (Flight Information Region), but you are quite far away from civilization, and the distances are quite mind-boggling. When you take off from Cape Town, it’s a five-hour flight to Troll. The equivalent in the Northern Hemisphere would be to fly to Svalbard, but you would do it from Algiers or somewhere on the African North Coast.
So, you take off, and it’s immediately just the Southern Ocean. So you’re far away from civilization, and we had an Air Force survival expert who came in and ran a course in polar survival training for the entire crew.
That’s just another example of the mind-boggling layers of planning that went into making the trip so successful. But you just touched on survival, which leads me to the next question. You’re going to a remote airfield, and we’re so used to seeing sophisticated fire and rescue equipment at airports where you see wide-body airplanes flying in and out of. So I’m guessing the fire and rescue capability at Troll would be a little bit more limited. How did you manage to have less in the way of infrastructure to support you if something did go wrong?
Yeah, that was also a big part of the preparation, and a starting point here is that when you fly down there, you’re in the hands of the Norwegian Polar Institute, which means that they severely limit who can come along.
It was either your crew or one of the researchers on the passenger list. There were no others. We could not bring any other passengers or anybody else from the airline. We brought only crew members. So the first step is to just restrict the number of people on board. The 787 in the configuration that we fly currently takes 338 passengers, but we had only 45, if I’m not mistaken. Because they have had operators fly down there in the past, they have put requirements in place for fire and rescue at the airfield.
They already had quite a bit of equipment. So they had enough to bring it up to what is called Rescue Fire Fighting Service (RFFS) Level Six, and that’s not too bad. That’s normally what you need for a Boeing 737 or an Airbus 320, the type of aircraft that have been flying there in the past. Now, the 787-9 needs Level 9, and in Norse, we have approval to use airfields that are down to Level 8 on a normal basis. So there was a gap there. We needed Level 8, and they only had Level 6. To reduce it further is not unheard of. For example, during ETOPS operations, you can reduce to Level 4, and for (NOTAM) reductions and other alternate airfields, it’s quite normal to bring it down a couple of steps.
But, of course, this is not something you just do. You need to do a careful risk assessment on it. And you need to have some controls in place so that that reduction is acceptable. I think this is where we had a lot of conversations back and forth with the aviation authority about what would be acceptable in this case.
So what we did was, first of all, place all the passengers between the forward door pairs, so between door pair one and door pair two. This then shortens the area where the rescue effort could be focused. We then did something that you normally don’t do, and that is that we invited the entire fire rescue team at Troll Station to come to Oslo for a day of training on the aircraft. So that when they see the aircraft down there, it will not be the first time they have seen it. They would have seen it already and knew how to open the doors. They know exactly what it looks like inside, too. Since this team trains in Oslo anyway, it wasn’t too much of a challenge to get them over.
So they were trained by our instructors, and we hold the training records for them. All of these things together, as well as being such a limited type of operation, meant that the gap was acceptable for this flight.
That’s fascinating. I’m amazed to hear that it was Level Six capability down at Troll. I was expecting something far more rudimentary, so that’s fascinating to hear. You’ve already talked about your GPS approaches and some of their capabilities. But I’m guessing that down in that part of the world, you’re flying on true, not magnetic, in terms of compass orientation. Is that correct?
You could, and some operators do. However, it’s not that far south. It’s about 70 degrees south. So the automatic switchover happens at around 80 degrees south on a Boeing. So we stayed in the magnetic field, and it was not too extreme. We just had to do conversions like wind reports were made in true and such.
But again, here we were falling back to the philosophy that we stuck with throughout, which is to keep it as normal as possible. If we can use magnetic, then let’s use magnetic because that’s what we normally do in most cases.
It’s quite interesting as well if we go quickly back to all the preparations and what they have at the facilities they have at the airfield. The Norwegian Polar Institute, do take things seriously! I guess you have to go down in these rough climates down there. So they have a proper firetruck. It looks like a firetruck you’d see at any European airport, and we did much preparation on the ground operations side because we were bringing down a radar antenna that they were going to attach to one of these Basler DC 3 conversions.
It was going to fly; it did fly, actually, just a couple of days after we landed. They did some sort of scan of the ice depth, and this antenna was bulky. It was large. So you may have seen in some of the pictures how we used a Volvo front loader to get it off the airplane.
And that’s not a small feat. You don’t want to take a front loader close to an aircraft because one of the major risks down there from a technical perspective is that any sort of issue with the aircraft would have been a very bad day!
So the ground operations side at Norse demanded that the Polar Institute prepare a detailed procedure on how to offload this antenna and other equipment, and they built a custom platform that was attached to that front loader so that the front loader never had to move that close to the aircraft. They just placed that platform in front of the cargo door, and they could roll off the cargo that way. It’s impressive, the Polar Institute, what they can do and what capabilities they have.
Thank you very much. And for our listeners who might be scratching their heads and wondering why we’re talking about true or magnetic. Normally, aircraft orient themselves using magnetic compass orientations, but certainly towards the North Pole. And I guess once you get close to the South Pole, there’s normally so much variation between true and magnetic that you normally use true instead of magnetic compass direction. So hopefully that might explain to some of our listeners why we went off on a bit of a tangent there, but that was interesting.
We are getting to the end of my questions, but one of the main complexities, I think, is that you had a long duty. I think it was possibly about 14 or 15 hours from leaving Cape Town to getting back, but you just had that one team on board. How did you manage to make sure that the crew was alert when they needed to be alert? How did you manage the rest? Talk to us about how you managed the crewing side of things.
Absolutely. So, we took off from Cape Town with a very heavy crew. So we had four pilots, and we had nine cabin crew, I think. So, our maximum duty would have been 17 hours. Then the flight is five hours long, and you only have 40 passengers, so there was quite a bit of an opportunity to rest on the way over and then to rest on the way back. As per previous operators and pilots that we talked to, they all said the same thing, and we experienced it too: that there is so much adrenaline that trying to sleep on this one is a challenge. I think I managed to get a little bit of sleep on the way back, so it was all good.
But of course, when it comes to rest periods on board, the important thing is to have the opportunity to rest. You don’t have to sleep, of course. This was also part of the risk assessment of how we scheduled the whole thing. We had planned for a three-hour ground stop to offload the cargo, and loading some cargo in reality took four hours, so we were over by one hour. But we had quite a bit of margin there, and we spent a lot of time talking about all these sorts of risk factors.
The same thing goes on in terms of delays. So when it comes to the technical side of things, what do we do if we have an aircraft technical issue while we’re down there? We had two aircraft engineers on board, and they had a so-called ‘flyaway kit’. I think the flyaway kit was almost the same weight as the cargo that we took down because they had everything from spare tires to APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) controllers and everything you could imagine that could break down there.
There was quite a bit of time, quite a bit of effort, and the planning that we spent on talking about how we manage an extensive delay down there.
And you mentioned you had four pilots. Did you have two pilots fly southbound and then the other two fly north? Or how did you sort of figure out who was going to do what?
We had all four and the flight deck for both sectors, and we just did a slight change of crew on the return. Something that we will discuss if we’re going to do future flights to Troll, because hopefully this was not a one-time trip, is how we will manage the experience on the flight deck and the crew composition.
I can imagine that after such a trip that required such meticulous planning, there must be some things that you have reflected on, and there have been learning points and maybe things you could have done better. If you were to go back again, which I very much hope you do, what would you do differently?
That is a long list of things! One of the things, which is a small little detail, is that if you’re parked for four hours with the APU running, what happens? You get a fuel imbalance. When it happens in Oslo or New York, it’s not a problem. You just push the switches, and you’re done. But when you fly to a place like Antarctica, for everything you do, you want to have a conversation beforehand. Ideally, you want to have a risk assessment done beforehand. And this was something that we didn’t think of before it happened.
So we had a conversation on the spot there. Is there a risk? What are the risks involved with the fuel imbalance? Is there anything that we have to think about before we do this procedure? And in the end, there was no problem. We did the procedure, but, I guess, it’s things like that that we’re going to take one more run-through of all the possible things that could happen.
So if we go there again, we have ironed out any further unknowns that we weren’t even sure of that were going to be a problem before we went the first time. The other thing, which I believe is extremely important, is that we keep the mindset that this will never be a normal destination. We will have to ensure that we never get complacent, and the second time we go, there should be the same sort of effort as the first time we go there. Of course, with the experience of the first time behind us, we can never allow ourselves to think that, well, it’s just another turn-around at Troll.
Thank you. Lastly, I’m sure you’ve got lots of very colorful and vivid memories, but which part of the trip leaves the most poignant memory for yourself?
When we landed and left the aircraft, the guy who was next to me on landing and I walked down the runway because we had spent a lot of time with that study on the bearing strength of the ice, so, of course, we were curious to see what the actual touchdown point looked like, but we couldn’t find it. It was impossible!
The ice is so strong, it was impossible to see where we had touched down. So that we didn’t see, but as we’re looking down the ice runway, looking for this, I looked up and I just saw this white desert of just ice everywhere, and then the aircraft is just parked there on the ice, and that image is going to stay with me for a long time.
That sounds like a very memorable image that’s been imprinted. So Captain Lindström, the Fleet Chief Pilot from Norse Atlantic Airways, thank you so much for taking the time to give such an in-depth overview as to what went on behind the scenes. The more you talked, the more I underestimated just what went on behind the scenes to make it such a success. So thank you very much for your time. I hope to see one of your airplanes in Antarctica again, and hopefully, we can report about it and cover it.
Thank you for chatting with me. It’s been really exciting. So thank you very much.
Thank you very much, Chris. It was great talking to you.
You can listen to the above interview in the Season 5 premiere of The Airways Podcast, which features this informative conversation between Airways’ Chris Smith and Olov Lindström, the first person to captain a Boeing 787 to Antarctica.
Featured image: Norse Atlantic Airways Antarctic Boeing 787 flight crew. Photo: Erik Moen, Norse Atlantic Airways