Charter airplane operator Hi Fly successfully landed an Airbus A340 on the frozen landscape of Antarctica for the first time ever on Nov. 2, opening the door for tourists, scientists and cargo to be delivered to the continent on a much larger plane.
The aircraft, which took off from Cape Town, South Africa, and traveled 2,500 nautical miles to Antarctica, was piloted by Capt. Carlos Mirpuri. The flight carried 23 passengers and plenty of cargo and landed safely on the unique conditions of a blue glacial ice runway.
The weather was beautiful during takeoff in Cape Town, with the Airbus A340's departure delayed only slightly due to bird activity over the runway. At takeoff, the plane weighed in below the maximum weight of 275 tons.
Mirpuri and his co-pilot received frequent weather reports approaching the flight's final destination, Wolf Fang Runway in Antarctica. Landings can be attempted only when the weather is nearly perfect.
"Forecasters do a great job, and we only launch to Antarctica when the weather meets our dispatch requirements," Mirpuri wrote in a log detailing his journey. "But a forecast is a forecast, and when you fly to the end of the world you need frequent assurance that the weather meets for the forecast."
Weather reports continued to indicate that the conditions were good for landing, which was the real challenge of the mission. A blue glacial ice runway brings unique challenges for aircraft the first of which is actually spotting the runway.
"The reflection is tremendous, and proper eyewear helps you adjust your eyes between the outside view and the instrumentation," Mirpuri wrote. "The blending of the runway with the surrounding terrain and the immense white desert around makes height judgment challenging, to say the least."
Mirpuri, who is also a vice president and co-founder of Hi Fly, noted that the blue glacial ice runway is hard enough to withstand the weight of a heavy aircraft.
"Grooving is carved along the runway by special equipment, and after cleaning and carving, we get an adequate braking coefficient the runway being 3,000 meters long, landing and stopping an A340 that heavy of that airfield wouldn't be a problem," he said.
The pilots also had to deal with the plane's altimeters suffering from errors related to the cold weather, something they had the skill and experience to adjust for, leading to a textbook and uneventful landing.
"When we reached taxi speed, could hear a round of applause from the cabin. We were joyful. After all, we were writing history," Mirpuri wrote.