Landing a 787 on Antarctic Ice

The inhospitality of Antarctica requires little setup. It’s the coldest place on the planet. It’s so remote that, sometimes, when one develops appendicitis one must perform surgery on one’s self.

Approximately 70 scientific stations dot the icy continent, staffed by around 1,200 brave souls during the winter. During the summer, populations swell toward 5,000 researchers. Since Antarctica lies (mostly) below the Antarctic Circle, the 1,200 experience endless darkness during the winter; conversely, those who work during the summer get perpetual sunlight.

Since it’s in the Southern Hemisphere, its seasons are flipped from the Northern Hemisphere, meaning Antarctica is barreling toward the summer solstice. So, the research stations are beginning to burgeon with scientists.

How does one usually get to this isolated locale?

British Aerospace Avro RJ85 - photo by Adrian Pingstone
Ilyushin Il-76 - photo by Vitaly V. Kuzmin
De Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter

Traditionally, on a boat.

The ice, snow, and weather conditions of Antarctica have made it rather difficult to establish significant infrastructure. A research base is one thing, a major runway is another. Humans have worked to cobble together landing strips for airplanes, but the size of the craft has tended to be on the smaller side. Wheeled airplanes do not function well on snowy surfaces. Traveling inland often requires ski modifications.

One quirk of Antarctica’s climate, however, allows for a few exceptions. Much of the continent is currently a desert, despite the abundance of frozen water. In some areas, the lack of new snow, wind removal, and sublimation produce a net loss of snow. The result is a relatively flat, hard surface. Over time, these surfaces become harder because the ice pushes out air bubbles, becoming denser. The same phenomenon occurs in glaciers. The ice in glaciers and in these so-called blue-ice areas in Antarctica absorbs wavelengths closer to red well and scatters blue hues, making them appear nicely cerulean.

While Antarctica does not boast asphalt runways, blue ice is the closest to a road on the massive landform. Perfect for landing a plane, right?

Notice the blue ice below the plane - photo by Stein Nilsen
Locations of blue ice areas in Antarctica - graphic by Hannes Grobe/AWI

Sort of.

While blue ice runways are hard enough for a landing, ice isn’t exactly great at friction. In order to land, pilots must eschew normal braking systems and rely on reverse thrust to stop. Still, blue ice runways open up the continent to new types of aircraft.

And a Norwegian company just landed the largest airliner ever to grace Antarctica at a place called Troll.

A region named Queen Maud Land - graphic by Carnby
Troll's location on Antarctica
Jutulsessen from the south-east - photo by Diorit
Troll Station - photo by Islarsh

About 150 miles from the coast, Troll resides in a region called Queen Maud Land and is operated by the Norwegian Polar Institute. Troll was named for the appearance of Jutulsessen, a nearby nunatak. This Greenlandic word means a mountain that peaks out from an ice sheet. The Norwegians who founded the station believed the nunatak looked like mythological creatures from their national mythologies.

Part of the reason for selecting this spot for a center revolved around its ability to serve as a year-round airstrip. The blue ice runway at Troll is nearly 10,000 feet long, allowing airplanes sufficient time to stop themselves and take off.

The blue ice at Troll is so accommodating, in fact, that Norse Atlantic Airways just landed a Boeing 787 Dreamliner there!

On 15 November 2023 at 2:01 AM, the Dreamliner serenely kissed Troll’s blue ice. Note, in the video above, the sunlight at 2 AM!

The sophistication of human engineering continues to impress. The 787 took off from Cape Town in South Africa, 2,700 miles away, and has the ability to land in Antarctica and return to its origin without refueling. We’ve discussed many times around the TMAC campfires that one of the best parts about living in this era of history is the access we have to video of all sorts of accomplishments in strange corners of the globe.

One giant plane visiting Troll allowed 12 tons of equipment and 45 scientists to use just one hop to get to Antarctica, a trip that normally would require many stops and more fuel. Perhaps more impressive than the logistical feat is the ability of the flight attendants to pose for a photograph in Antarctica as if it’s no big deal:

Photo by Norse Atlantic Airlines

The temperatures at Troll can reach 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 Celsius) in the summer. I suppose these women are likely Norwegian, so relatively balmy Antarctic conditions might not be something too far out of their experience.

Though the commercial airline service to Antarctica is unlikely to spur too much vacationing, it might enable more scientific study of this incredible continent.

Perhaps one day a take-off like the video below might be commonplace, but for now it sits in the awe-inspiring realm.

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