WILKINS RUNWAY, Antarctica – Australian scientists landed on an ice runway in Antarctica on Friday, officially opening a new air link between Australia and the white continent.
An Airbus A319 became the first passenger aircraft to land on the 2.5-mile-long Wilkins Runway, inaugurating a weekly service from the southern city of Hobart that will run during the summer season between October and March.
The flight — which will carry scientists and is not open to tourists — means Australia has joined other Antarctic nations, including the United States, that have regular air contact with scientific bases there.
It also heralds a new era of Australian research in the Antarctic, with a 4.5-hour flight now an alternative to a five-week sea voyage.
"It's a remarkable engineering feat these people have achieved," Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett said of the new runway after landing in midnight sunshine and minus 16 degrees Celsius (3 degrees Fahrenheit) conditions.
"It's a logistical triumph and connects the last two continents to be linked by air," he added.
The inaugural flight was greeted by the eight permanent staff who spent two years building the remote runway and a dozen Australian Antarctic Division expeditioners who traveled 40 miles from their base at Casey Station to witness the event and provide tea and cakes for the visitors.
Pilot Garry Studd said the laser-leveled runway carved in glacial ice made the landing no different to any other.
While the seven scientists on the flight will remain at Casey for three weeks to research penguins and whales, Garrett and the other 11 passengers left after three hours on the ice, arriving back in Hobart 12 hours after leaving the city.