Twenty-five years ago Adventure Network International (ANI) made history by landing a privately operated wheeled aircraft in Antarctica. On November 21, 1987, Captain Jim Smith landed a Douglas DC-4 on a blue-ice airfield at Patriot Hills in the Ellsworth Mountains. This ground-breaking achievement changed the face of aviation in Antarctica, and paved the way for direct flights from Punta Arenas in Chile without the need for refuelling stops along the way. The very first wheeled aircraft to land at Patriot Hills was a De Haviland Twin Otter on December 4, 1986. The pilot, Giles Kershaw, had to land at several points on the Antarctic Peninsula during the flight south to refuel.
Glaciologist, Dr Charles Swithinbank, former Head of Earth Sciences at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), was charged by ANI with the responsibility of finding a suitable blue-ice runway on which conventional commercial aircraft could land. He recalls his first impressions back in the 1980s of Patriot Hills.
“A bleaker place would be hard to imagine. The wind was cutting through our clothing. A few small bundles at our feet were all that stood between us and encroaching hypothermia. We pitched our tiny mountain dome tent but tent pegs were useless because the surface was like concrete. We laboriously screwed ice screws into the ground, one by one, and attached the guy ropes. All my life I had enjoyed the luxury of pyramid tents that felt safe in almost any wind. Now I was to live in a survival tent made for backpacking mountaineers who did not seek comfort.”
A quarter of a century later, ANI remains the most experienced and capable private operator in the interior of Antarctica, having carried thousands of passengers to the region and supported almost every expedition that has crossed the continent.
The DC-4 aircraft was replaced in 1989 by a DC-6 which, in turn, was replaced by a Lockheed Hercules L-382 in 1993. Since 2000, ANI has been transporting passengers and cargo from Punta Arenas to Antarctica in an Ilyushin 76 TD, with Twin Otter and Basler BT-67 – a DC-3 conversion – ski-aircraft being used for flights within the Antarctic interior.
A new blue-ice runway became operational at Union Glacier in November 2010, after several years of research and data collection by ANI’s parent company, Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE). The new into-wind runway allows a more predictable flight schedule with less likelihood of delays due to weather conditions, as well as enhanced logistic support in Antarctica. Patriot Hills remains ANI’s secondary runway in Antarctica.
Modern-day adventure seekers still have to endure temperatures as low as -30°C ( 22°F) and a wind chill factor that can plummet to -40°C (-40°F). But if they choose, they are now able to stay in relative comfort at Union Glacier, ANI’s spacious basecamp, and can choose from a wide selection of Antarctic Experiences ranging from gentle exploration to extremely strenuous expeditions.