Update from Antarctica: Navigating Rothera

  • 3rd Apr 2024

A thousand miles from the southern tip of Chile, the flight from Punta Arenas (ICAO designator SCCI) to the Rothera Research Station (EGAR) is the shortest gateway into Antarctica from any continent on the planet.  But to make the trip from one to the other is to cross one of the harshest seas in the world, the Drake Passage of the Antarctic Ocean.  And when you arrive, you are way beyond any realistic diversion airfield options, and the approach to the runway is unforgiving.  Not only does the runway extend into the ice-cold ocean with icebergs drifting, and sometimes grounding, on and around the approach path, but on Runway 18, an ice cliff inhibits aircraft from making a conventional instrument approach on a 3° glidepath to its short 876m gravel surface. 

This is the geographic and environmental situation that the Dash-7 crews of the British Antarctic Survey face on each flight as they ferry scientists into the UK’s Research Station throughout the austral summer in order to further advance understanding of the Antarctic, and of the complex interactions between the Earth’s global ecosystems contributing to Climate Change.  In short: conducting Polar Science for a Sustainable Planet, the British Antarctic Survey’s strapline.  And while the crews are a supporting element of that scientific vision, the airbridge that they provide is a critical enabler of the national operation, which has maintained a continuous UK presence in Antarctica, one of the most extreme natural environments in the world, and with no indigenous population of its own, for some 80 years.  

Once in Antarctica, the British Antarctic Survey uses a small fleet of DHC-6-300s to provide the science crews with mobility on and beyond the Antarctic peninsula, and to resupply the longer deployments with all that they need to survive and to conduct their operations.  It is for this mission that I once again find myself flying on the airbridge, deploying into this icy southernmost continent in support of that crucial research work. 

Words provided by Tim Below who  is an experimental test pilot, now flying with the British Antarctic Survey after a 36-year career in the Royal Air Force, and will be presenting on the Inspire Stage at RIAT 2024.