The Flight To Nowhere

Credit: Christian Pezalla
Christian Pezalla/ERAU Alumn

It’s early on a Sunday morning at the Melbourne, Australia airport. Passengers are scrambling to make their flights to near and far parts of the world. Then a new flight appears on the departures screen – a flight to Melbourne, Australia. Yes, a commercial flight scheduled to depart and arrive at the same airport. Over at Gate 23 sits a Boeing 747-400 – a rather large aircraft for a flight to nowhere. The waiting area is filled with passengers carrying cameras and eagerly looking at the large QANTAS jet, as if it was about to do something interesting. Just then, a promotional sign and a person wearing a penguin suit give it away. The flight is going nowhere, and nowhere happens to be Antarctica.

Several times per year, during the summer months, an Australian-based tour company (Antarctica Flights) schedules sightseeing flights to Antarctica. The remote region is accessible only by air and sea, with limited landing areas. Those landing areas are restricted to government and scientific flights, and require specially equipped aircraft. However, there is no need for this sightseeing plane to land. Rather it will circle over the Antarctic continent and coastline for several hours, affording passengers a once in a lifetime viewing opportunity. Provided by QANTAS (Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services,) the 747 is configured for regular long-haul flights, such as Sydney to Los Angeles. The aircraft itself has no special modification or equipment for flight in the polar region.

The flight crew, however, has special procedures and training for Antarctic flight. The crew of five pilots include two captains approved for Antarctic flight by the airline. Within the QANTAS pilot group, there are only a handful of Antarctica-qualified captains, mostly very senior pilots. Navigation for the 12-hour flight is accomplished primarily by satellite. As the aircraft approaches 60 degrees of latitude, the captain will switch the displays from magnetic north to true north. This is necessary as the plane will pass directly over the Magnetic South Pole during the flight.

The Antarctic region has no air traffic control; however, the aircraft is in contact with local aircraft, ships and ground stations. En route to the Antarctic, the flight deck contacts an Antarctic supply vessel for a brief conversation, using the cabin PA system to share the interaction with the passengers. Accompanying passengers in the back of the plane are three explorers with real experience in Antarctica. A narrative by the explorers provides background information and a description of what will be visible from the plane, including several current and former exploration basecamps.

A bit over 3 hours into the flight, the cabin fills with excitement as the first icebergs come into view. The clouds have cleared, and the plane is descending to a lower altitude to give passengers a better view. The scattered icebergs gradually become solid ice. Through the ice, mountains and other land features extend upwards, revealing the fact that land does exist. Unlike the North Pole (with has no land under the icecap,) Antarctica is a physical landmass simply covered in ice.

The region of rocky shores and endless sheets of snow appears empty from the windows of a fast moving aircraft; however, it is home to a vast range of sea life. Mammals such as seals and penguins live both above and below the ice while well-adapted plants and fish flourish in the cold but consistent temperatures of the Antarctic waters. Along the coastal areas, birds of all kinds search for food and suitable nesting grounds, taking advantage of the relatively warm summer weather.

Despite over 200 years of human exploration, the Antarctic remains largely untouched. Remnants of early expeditions can still be found, including the hut built by British explorer Robert Scott, whose team reached the Geographic South Pole in 1912, but tragically failed to return home. The same hut was later used by famed explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-1917 Trans-Antarctic Expedition, during which one of his ships, the Endurance, sank after spending ten months trapped by ice. In 2013, a team visiting the hut found 22 undeveloped photos, believed to have been taken during Shackleton’s expedition. The cold and dry air of Antarctica had preserved them for over 100 years.

As the plane makes its final turn back towards Melbourne, I quickly snap a few more photos from a passenger window. Moments later, the solid ice below gives way to a field of icebergs and night begins to fall. The flight path on the in-flight entertainment system displays the aircraft’s unique journey and the projected path back to civilization. Fighting a headwind, the plane travels another four and a half hours, to make its way home to Australia. The smooth landing is followed by a short taxi to the domestic arrival gates. This is one of the rare occasions when this 747 will be seen at a domestic gate. Scheduled for a repositioning flight to Sydney the following morning, it will promptly return to regular international service, including transpacific flights.
Ultimately, the 12-hour roundtrip flight provided four hours over the ice and some of the most interesting and stunning photos imaginable. While we did not physically set foot on the largely frozen continent of Antarctica, we were able to see for ourselves a part of the world which has only become truly accessible to humans during the last 100 years. Best of all, the trip did not require spending weeks at sea.

Credit: Christian Pezalla

Credit: Christian Pezalla

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Credit: Christian Pezalla

Credit: Christian Pezalla