Before 2005, getting personnel to the Norwegian Polar Institute’s Troll Research Station (AT27/QAT) in Antarctica involved a weeks-long boat ride followed by a 250 kilometer trek over snow, ice, and rock. But in 2005, the research station opened its 3000 meter blue ice runway. With the summer season coming to a close and most personnel flying home this week on an Icelandair 767, we wanted to learn more about what it takes to operate an airport in Antarctica. We spoke with Sven Lidström, the operations manager at Troll Station to learn more.
Building and maintaining a blue ice runway
The original construction of the runway was done over two years and accomplished using a laser cutter to level the blue ice near the station, which is located 250 kilometers from the ice shelf at -72.011, 2.52. Completed in 2005, the finished runway is 3000 meters long by 60 meters wide.
Preparing the runway for flights is a two-week process that begins with the removal of snow from the runway. The research station actually puts snow over the runway to help it stay as cold as possible when not in use.
Once the snow is removed, the runway is inspected for cracks, pits, or any other deficiencies that would prevent a safe landing. These are repaired by crews with a mixture of cold water, ice chips, and snow that is poured on, allowed to harden, and then smoothed over.
Finally, two snow groomers with tillers grind a small layer of ice to create a top layer of crushed snow and ice that gives the runway the necessary friction for aircraft to operate. Lidström points out that equipment at Troll isn’t necessarily purpose built, ‘These are the same machines that you see on ski slopes, but with a tiller grinder attached.’
The runway moves
While every airport in the world deals with magnetic drift and the need to renumber runways every so often, the situation is more acute at Troll—the runway itself moves a few meters each year. ‘And it doesn’t move evenly… it’s like a twisting force on it,’ says Lidström, which means that crews will eventually need to straighten the runway. The movement of the runway is dependent on the movement of the glacier on which it sits, so the roughly seven kilometer journey from the research station to the runway increases slightly each year.
Safety at such a remote airport is paramount because any incident needs to be handled locally. That’s why staff are trained not only in their respective fields, but in different aspects of airfield operations. The station electrician may be monitoring the air traffic control ‘tower’ while the cook is seated in the station’s Rosenbauer+Scania ‘Buffalo’ fire tender.
‘Each person [who will work on the airfield] goes through training in Svalbard on much the same equipment before coming to the station,’ says Lidström, which means personnel are ready to get to work as soon as they arrive.
Flight safety begins with runway preparation then moves on to the weather. Forecasters at the German Antarctic research station are responsible for providing weather forecasts about a week prior to any scheduled flight and continue to provide updates based on the Troll Station’s own weather sensors and those at neighboring facilities. ‘This last flight was actually moved up 24 hours because of a coming storm,’ says Lidström. ‘We have a GPS approach available, but we don’t like operate in poor weather.’
There’s no radar at Troll, but incoming flights are tracked by a Flightradar24 ADS-B receiver and the airfield is in communication with the aircraft via radios and satellite telephone if necessary.
In the winter months, there usually aren’t any flights, but the team of six that maintains the station also keep the runway ready to use in case of emergency. For any winter operations, the station can deploy a precision approach path indicator (PAPI) and runway edge lighting. It is usually too bright during the summer season for the PAPI and runway lighting to be used.
The runway is available to all types of aircraft as long as they are capable of landing and departing on a 3000 meter runway. Troll Station has the equipment to service most any aircraft, including a ground power unit, air start and fueling equipment.
How do you fuel a plane in Antarctica?
In short, very carefully. Jet A-1 fuel is sent to Troll once a year in 200 liter barrels aboard the re-supply ship that docks at the edge of the ice shelf about mid-summer season. All of the supplies, including the fuel, are then taken via tracked vehicles and sledges on a 250 km journey back to the station. That long journey from Denmark helps explain why fuel is so expensive at Troll. A single 200 liter barrel costs costs €1200 or roughly 4-6 times the average cost of fuel at large European airport.
For flights bringing personnel to and from the station, ‘we prefer larger aircraft that can carry enough fuel to return without refueling,’ says Lidström, noting the high costs, but also the time it takes to fuel a large aircraft using the equipment available at the station. For larger aircraft, fuel is transferred from the 200 liter drums to a 16,000 liter pressure fueling tank housed inside of a modified shipping container. Smaller aircraft, like the Twin Otter commonly used in Antarctica are fueled directly from the drums.
The Troll Research Station terminal
Passengers are accommodated in expandable Weatherhaven tents that built into a modified shipping container. The ‘terminal’ building can be heated and is equipped with WiFi, so people transiting at Troll to one of the other research stations can rest or catch up on messages. There are also toilets available, which aren’t available at every airfield in Antarctica, so pilots and passengers alike are well cared for at Troll.
Time to go
Aircraft operating supply and personnel transfer flights for the research station usually only stay on the ground long enough to perform any needed servicing, cargo loading, and pre-flight checks. The trip from Cape Town takes approximately six hours so time is precious for flights that are returning the same day.
When it’s time to go, there’s no need for deicing even though the continent is covered in snow and ice. The air in Antarctica is so dry that the moisture that causes icing isn’t an issue. If for some reason, deicing is necessary, the station has heaters and good old fashioned brooms available.
And what about passports and security? ‘We do passport checks prior to departure,’ says Lidström. If you show up in Antarctica without a passport, that’s not really an issue, but trying to get back into South Africa or home to Norway would be a problem.
Lidström says there have been a few hiccups over the years, but most everyone remembers their documents, ‘People all want the station stamp in their passport.’