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Aircraft in Antarctica

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) carries out an ambitious and challenging programme of science. This is supported by a fleet of five aircraft, specially adapted to operate in the extreme Antarctic climate.

The BAS aircraft fleet consists of four de Havilland Twin Otters and one de Havilland Dash-7. Between them they undertake a wide variety of transport and science missions. The Dash-7 and three of the Twin Otters are equipped with modifications to allow them to carry out airborne science surveys.

Dash-7 and a Twin Otter - Dash-7 and a Twin Otter flying together.At the beginning of each season the aircrew – eight pilots and four engineers – ferry the aircraft south from their base in the northern hemisphere. Flights in the Antarctic take place during the Antarctic summer, between October and March, as winter darkness and very cold temperatures prevent flying at other times.

Rothera Research Station, the centre for BAS air operations, has a 900m gravel runway. The Dash-7 undertakes regular shuttle-flights from Rothera to and from the Falkland Islands and Punta Arenas, Chile. BAS aircraft also operate out of Halley Research Station and from field stations at Fossil Bluff and Sky-Blu.

Flying in the Antarctic

Antarctica is the coldest, harshest and most isolated environment on the planet. Even in summer, only a few thousand people inhabit the continent and there are vast distances between research stations. Geographically, Antarctica is also isolated from the rest of the world – the nearest civilisation is some five hours away by air. Flying in the Antarctic is a challenging undertaking.

Safety is at the heart of all Antarctic air operations. BAS pilots receive specialist training and always fly with a co-pilot. The aircraft carry fuel reserves and emergency supplies because Antarctic flying is extremely weather dependent. Poor conditions can often ground aircraft for several days.

The Rothera air facility has a control tower and radar beacons. From here planes fly either directly to the field or via fuel depots to their final destination. During the Antarctic summer one of the Twin Otters is based at Halley Research Station to support projects in the eastern sector of BAS operations, covering an area up to 800km from the station.

The Twin Otter aircraft are equipped with skis for landing on snow and ice in remote areas. In addition to its role ferrying people and supplies between Rothera and the Falkland Islands or Punta Arenas, the Dash-7 also lands on the blue-ice runway at Sky-Blu Field Station – a staging post for deeper forays into the continent.

The image below shows key locations for BAS air operations in Antarctica.

BAS Aircraft Operations - Key locations for BAS air operations in Antarctica

Crossing the air-bridge

Many BAS staff arrive in the Antarctic by air. One of the primary roles of the Dash-7 aircraft is to provide an ‘air-bridge’ between Rothera and the small airport at Stanley in the Falkland Islands. The weather determines if a flight will take place and each morning before take-off, pilots check the weather forecast for the entire route. Sometimes weather at Rothera deteriorates mid-flight and the pilots have to return to the Falklands to wait for an improvement. This can sometimes take several days.

While the UK has flights to Antarctica from the Falkland Islands and Chile, other countries embark from New Zealand (including the United States), Chile and Argentina. BAS also uses the Falkland Islands as a port for its two ships.

Antarctic Air Operations

During any Antarctic field season BAS aircraft fly many thousands of kilometres, often deep into the continent or high onto the Polar Plateau. These flights would be impossible without fuel depots and supply stops. BAS operates two field stations which are permanently staffed during the summer – Sky-Blu and Fossil Bluff. Other temporary fuel depots are established as necessary, sometimes over numerous summer seasons.