After the first A340 landing in November 2021 on the ice, HiFly operated 15 round trips from Cape Town to the private airfield Wolf’s Fang in Queen Maud Land, five flight hours away, this season until February 2023. “They were not full of passengers, but heavy with a lot of cargo we brought in to build our new camp,” Patrick Woodhead, owner/founder of White Desert, tells Airlineratings.com
“It’s a balance between passengers and cargo. The limiting factor is often our maximum landing weight in Antarctica of 190 tons, on a flight that only takes five hours on this ultra long haul aircraft, as we have to take return fuel into account.”
The 47-year-old Woodhead was a polar explorer and world-record holder himself, having skied for 4,500 km across the Antarctic plateau. These days he facilitates easier access for others. “We carried about 220 tourists and scientists each this season, plus our own staff, over 500 passengers altogether,” Woodhead reveals.
HiFly used ex-Emirates A340-313X (with increased takeoff weight) registered 9H-TQZ for all flights, stationed at Cape Town International Airport for the entire Antarctic season. The aircraft has 267 seats, “but we have limited our passenger number to 70, as we have to take precautions for the worst case when an aircraft can’t take off from Antarctica. This way we ensure we have enough accommodation, food, toilets and water should this happen,” explains Woodhead.
On top of the A340 flights, White Desert operated twelve flights to its own airfield by chartered Gulfstream G550, mostly early and late last season, to take scientists and staff in or out. “We gain huge efficiencies in combining scientist and tourist traffic, which makes it cheaper and better for both parties,” stresses White Desert’s founder.
Wolf’s Fang first opened in 2015 and White Desert initially brought tourists to its small camp nearby on Russian Ilyushin Il-76s from Cape Town. The rugged Soviet-era transport aircraft was the usual commute for scientists and staff of most all Antarctic stations until the Russian war on Ukraine. While the Russians still fly from Cape Town until today (South Africa didn’t impose sanctions), only their own and Indian station staff currently use it. Introducing regular and reliable passenger wide-body service to Antarctica is a quantum leap in polar transportation. “Utilizing a wide-body to carry scientists was a requirement even before the war,” says Woodhead.
Such a big airliner offers immense benefits over Russian aircraft. “The A340-300 carries return fuel, that’s a massive deal for us. The Ilyushin had a point of no return going to Antarctica. Not having such a point due to sufficient return fuel is huge for us, especially if there is a change of weather patterns,” acknowledges Woodhead. “Also the A340 is a remarkable advantage in its belly capacity for cargo from the Il-76, which is a lot less comfortable and has service issues as well.” White Desert elevated the quality and capabilities of civilian airlift to Antarctica to new highs. “We offer a totally different service level, resulting in quite a lot of government services moving across to us.” Currently, Germany secures links to its Neumayer station through White Desert and Wolf’s Fang, as are scientific bases in the UK, South Africa, Finland and Sweden.
White Desert also operates 2 Basler Turbo BT-67s, rebuilt DC-3s, and one Twin Otter to locally distribute traffic from its ice runway with jet service. The most challenging mission for the BT-67s is to bring tourists all the way to the South Pole, an expedition that takes at least seven hours of flight time if not much more when the weather deteriorates. On the way, the sturdy Baslers have to refuel on the ice from pre-delivered drums. “When we are at Dixie’s Camp, our refuelling station on the way to the South Pole, the nearest neighbours to us are in the International Space Station above your head, you are as far as you could possibly be from other humans,” says Woodhead. As logistics in this utter remoteness are at their most expensive anywhere on earth, reaching this terrain as a tourist obviously comes at a premium. White Desert charges US$14,000 just for a one-night round-trip to Antarctica and back, including three hours on the ground around Wolf’s Fang and the new luxury Echo camp that opened there last season.
Anyone hinting at that being too expensive for a short polar outing is eagerly rebuffed by Patrick Woodhead: “Are you kidding me? You are only on the ground for three hours, yes, but you see the real Antarctica, a mountain, the ice caves. In terms of value for money, I think it’s a steal for the price of a first-class round-trip ticket between London and New York.” The reason the downtime is limited to three hours is crew duty time, as the 2,500nm outbound journey from Cape Town in about 5:15 flight hours plus the return is operated by just one crew. Setting up the whole operation at Wolf’s Fang around a 3000-meter runway on blue ice, built by the same expert that made Australia’s Wilkins runway, took several years and a major investment. Just planning the pioneering HiFly operation alone took one year. “HiFly was very brave in agreeing to be the first and go through all this,” enthuses Woodhead. “We will continue to work with HiFly, they are fantastic partners, on every single flight they are looking for operational improvements.”
The reliability of the almost schedule-like service has been surprisingly high in the first season. “We were pretty much on schedule, some flights were delayed by 24 hours, but most of our flights got in within 24 hours of the planned time.” One showstopper is temperature – once its rises above minus 6°C, the runway can’t take a wide body as the surface of the 1400-meter thick ice shield is no longer solid enough. “It’s a dynamic runway and the friction we are getting is not given, you have to treat the ice and make sure it happens, that’s why we are grooming the ice with Pistenbullys, like ski resorts do on the slopes,” explains Woodhead. “That’s tricky, you need a certain humidity, also temperature and the wind have a major impact.” Nothing is ever easy in Antarctica.
The first Antarctic season with a passenger wide-body providing regular transport to a blue ice runway has successfully ended.
Cape-Town-based (and UK-registered) operator White Desert and the Maltese arm of Portuguese charter airline HiFly pioneered operating multiple passenger and cargo services to the seventh continent in 2022/23.
After the first A340 landing in November 2021 on the ice, HiFly operated 15 round trips from Cape Town to the private airfield Wolf’s read more ⇒