MIAMI – While there are several airports that are considered challenging, almost all of them at least offer a paved tarmac strip to touch down but McMurdo station, located in Antarctica, offers pilots nothing more than a few inches of thin ice to put their aircraft down.
The entire runway complex is constructed on glacial ice of the McMurdo Ice Shelf, which is approximately 20 kilometers from the McMurdo station. The airfield goes by the name ‘Phoenix Airfield’, which came into service in 2016 and replaced the former ‘Pegasus Field’.
Phoenix is composed of heavily compacted snow known as ‘white ice’ while Pegasus suffered more melting which was built over ‘Blue Ice’.
This spectacular ice runway facility is built annually during the Antarctic summer – between August and October, making it a seasonal runway.
The station usually preps two permanent runways when conditions permit, a Primary Runway (11/29), 10,000 feet x 220 feet, and a Crosswind Runway (16/34) also of the same dimensions. A maximum of one-inch depth of loose snow is permissible on the runway and two inches on the ramp and taxiway
The position and alignment of these runways are not fixed and depend on the prevailing sea ice conditions. The runway’s weight-bearing capacity is determined specifically for each season after studying graphs that take into account ice thickness, ice temperature, aircraft type, and landing weight.
Phoenix Airfield, aka the Ice Runway, is certified to handle up to 60-wheeled flights a year. Although the runways are equipped with navaids such as a TACAN, MLS, and a PAR, the real challenge for pilots arises in Winter when the nights last a full 24hrs and with not enough runway lighting – it’s a break of sweat even for the most experienced pilots as the landing is nearly done blind.
However, the station’s runways have a strong safety record. If the ice suddenly fails to keep its thickness, the aircraft is forced to land elsewhere.
No other airfield in the world uses deep compacted snow to land heavy wheeled airplanes.
This airbase is the only main airport on the continent. Flights by the Air force ply between Christchurch, New Zealand, and McMurdo for the U.S. Antarctic Program.
While the C-17 Globemaster, Lockheed C- Galaxy, C-130 Hercules, and Lockheed P-3 are the most frequent visitors, commercial aircraft such as the Airbus A319, Boeing 737, Boeing 757, and more have made it to Phoenix field as well and their numbers are increasing. A beam of laser light is trained on parked heavy aircraft to measure the settlement rate if it is sinking or not.