DALLAS — Many landing sites are present in Antarctica today, primarily used as gateways for research purposes. A famous one is the McMurdo Station. White Desert, a luxury travel operator based in Antarctica, on the other hand, has worked tirelessly for years to get its runway working, and by working, I mean to the level of ICAO standards that allow an Airbus A340 to land safely onto Wolf’s Fang Runway.
Antarctica is a frozen barren land, and regarding flying, it’s the least developed compared to anywhere else on this planet. It takes a high level of expertise to operate down there, and it’s a job for certain experienced professionals and certain types of aircraft.
“When I first flew down to Antarctica, it was on an old Russian IL76, back in 2002 or so. A terrifying yet extremely capable aircraft, it was ancient; the interior was covered in duct tape, and it looked like it would fall apart. For a long time, the IL76 was used in Antarctica by a lot of people. It was Kazakh IL76, stage two – extremely noisy,” states Patrick Woodhead, founder of White Desert.
“For the first eight years of our operations, we used another company that provided us with an IL76 as well, which flew down to Antarctica from Cape Town. It’s a real 4X4 aircraft and perfect for this continent. Back in 2002, the runway was so different from what we have here today at Wolf’s Fang, it used to be just landing on raw ice.”
In this post, we look at what it’s like to get in and out of this literal white desert – aerial logistics.
In conversation with Patrick Woodhead
Airways correspondent Siddharth Ganesh talks to Patrick Woodhead, founder of White Desert, about the idea and complexity of running aerial services down in Antarctica.
SG: Since you established your first camp in 2005, did you receive guests immediately that flew down?
PW: We did it in tiny groups in 2005 with three little tents financed by my credit card. I had fallen in love with Antarctica during my previous visits, especially the interiors that were often reached only by scientists. So I went, “Hang on, this is absolutely stunning, why not set up a luxury camp, one just like a safari in Africa, in the middle of the wilderness?”
We started very humble with a few tents, and today we have about 120 people in Antarctica during the season and operate five airplanes between three campsites. All this took 18 years.
In the early years of your establishment, how did air travel and logistics pan out for you?
We used the IL76 from Cape Town; it was a flight for scientists visiting the continents, and we just took a handful of seats at the back of these planes to get our guests to our camps.
Finding Wolf’s Fang from the Whispers
Today, White Desert is ready to welcome aircraft to its runway site, but getting an operational runway safe enough to accommodate larger jets like the A340 wasn’t gifted to them.
“In 2014/15, I heard about this runway that had been active some 20 years ago, and there were rumors from pilots who had once flown there or something. I even came across a book back in London about a chef who was based at this runway site.” Woodhead said.
“So we went off looking for this old runway sight and found this cache of several tents that were left there for twenty years and the runway itself. We did a survey of the place and concluded that it’d be the best place to put a runway. And this was Wolf’s Fang.”
Patrick describes Wolf’s Fang as “God’s runways in Antarctica”. It stretches three kilometers in length and is sixty meters wide, located at 71°31′S, 08° 48′ E. But finding the runway wasn’t enough. Far more work and expertise were required.
“For us, the next step was how to groom the surface properly and create enough friction for airplanes to land safely. We were designing it based on a Gulfstream 550 to land.”
“One downside with the runway is we get crosswinds at 18–20 knots nearly 30 degrees off. But for comparison’s sake, we also get the same braking coefficient as London Heathrow (LHR) on a wet day.”
“When pilots arrive and fly down for the very first time, they are quite nervous. It’s all in the grooming and if we get the preparation of the runway wrong, for example, low friction, that could be a big problem.”
Grooming to Get it Right
Wolf’s Fang has a mountain right by it and sits approximately 1100 feet above mean sea level; thus, the runway doesn’t witness melting, nor is it high enough to get poor aircraft performance. It’s at an excellent height to stay just cold enough, as the minimum runway surface temperature required for sufficient friction is minus six degrees.
“When pilots fly down here for the very first time, they are very nervous. It’s all in the grooming, and if we get the preparation of the runway wrong, for example, with low friction, that could be a big problem”.
“When we get it right, which we do, we get incredible friction. When we first welcomed the Airbus A340 (the largest airplane to land in Antarctica), they, of course, had their auto brakes set to full, but on landing, the braking was so good they ended up needing just two kilometers of the runway—a full kilometer to spare. So, for next time, they could even go easier on the brakes.”
“It’s truly an amazing site, we are very blessed, and most of our flights go as per schedule.”
Grooming the runway is a tedious task. It takes, on average, twenty hours before flights arrive. Three to four aircraft can land behind each other quickly, but the moment an event takes place, grooming is again needed.
“It’s hard, long work, and we’ve got to get it right,” Woodhead added.
A Barrel of Fuel at $6000
White Desert brings in their fuel in a couple of ways to feed their fleet of Basler BT-67s, the Twin Otter, and their ground snow vehicles. One can imagine the complexity involved in transporting such an amount of fuel to a barren, frozen continent, and that too to the interiors, where no means of a pipeline system or transportation exist.
“We’ve got two Baslers in Antarctica and the Twin Otter. With this fleet, we have as many scientists as tourists. So for the fuel, we have this big ice-breaking vessel from the South African government that sails for ten days to Antarctica, smashes its way through the thick ice, and then drops a 20-ton fuel pod on this 200-foot-high cliff.”
“Our snow machines (Kässbohrer Pistenbullies) are waiting by the cliff, and then we drive that fuel back over 600 kilometers to Wolf’s Fang.
“Defueling the Airbus A340 is another way. When we have the A340 coming in, we de-fuel about 15 tons more that we can use for our Antarctic fleet.
“However, when we fly from Wolf’s Fang to the South Pole, yet again, we need the ground snow machines to drive 50 days at ten kmph to deliver fuel to the Basler’s that make a refueling stop at Dixie’s Camp ( formerly FD83 expedition camp) before heading to the South Pole,” described Woodhead.
“If you want figures, the fuel at this point (Dixie’s Camp) goes from being $110 for a barrel of jet A1 to our calculation of $6000. In Dixie’s Camp, it’s so remote that the nearest neighbor to you would be the International Space Station, flying 400 km above.”
Man your Stations at Wolf’s Fang
The topmost priority in aviation is safety, and landing in Antarctica with barely any access to basically any necessity is at the far edge. I asked Patrick what it’s like regarding staffing at Wolf’s Fang, especially when they have the A340 and the Basler BT-67 all scheduled to fly around the same time.
“Normally, there are about 40 people around the runway when we have the A340 coming in. “So, there’s the Basler pilots – a three-man crew and two sets, twin otter crew, fire truck officials, runway groomers, chefs, doctors, and support staff – who keep the camp running, be it for water, heat, showers, etc.”
Partnership with Hi-Fly for the A340
White Desert continues to use the Airbus A340 under a wet lease from Portuguese carrier HiFly (5K) during its season of operations. The season begins in late October and wraps up by March the following year.
“The A340 would stay at Wolf’s Fang for about three hours on its arrival, during which we’d unload all the cargo, defuel it, and receive clients and scientists. We also facilitate the transfer of our clients to our other camps, and that’s where the Basler BT-67s take over.”
Air travel to Antarctica, Can it Grow?
“I’m not concerned about the expansion. Firstly, it’s enormously expensive. Finding a runway is difficult. Wolf’s Fang is just a rare one. There are huge governments like Germany or China that don’t have ice runways like ours,” Mr Woodhead said.
“The other thing is that we need enough people in Antarctica to look after guests. We’ve got seats to bring in 300 people, but where do we put them in Antarctica? We are currently limited to just 40 people. It then seems like an aircraft flying with a lot of empty seats, but the real value is the cargo, which is imperative to us to keep our station and camps running safely.
“The whole process of flying into Antarctica and landing is very specialized, and even if an airline wanted to partner, it would find it extremely complicated. You also need a special permit.”
Sustainable Aviation Fuel at White Desert
Sustainability leaves no corner of the world, efforts and initiatives to bring in SAF go beyond just the flying fleet at White Desert.
“We’ve received our first test batch of forty thousand liters of SAF which is in Antarctica now. Our next step is to have all fuel usage out of SAF, be it the Basler’s the twin otter, the traverses, heating, etc.
“The A340 needs around 60 tons of fuel, and for us to bring that much SAF all the way is just counterproductive, so we’re looking to invest in alternative projects that will offset the fuel instead.”
Featured Image: White Desert.