WELLINGTON, New Zealand – A U.S. Air Force pilot has landed a plane in Antarctica in the dark for the first time using night-vision goggles, a feat that could lead to more supply flights to scientific bases in the frozen continent during its dark winter months, officials said Friday.
The C-17 Globemaster cargo airplane landed in a driving snowstorm on the six-mile (10-kilometer) ice runway at the U.S. Antarctic research center at McMurdo Station, after months of practice runs by pilots using the goggles.
The Air Force plane took off from Christchurch, New Zealand, and flew nearly six hours before landing Thursday night. It returned to Christchurch early Friday.
Air Force Lt. Col. Jim McGann said the airplane's own lights — reflecting off of traffic cones — allowed it to land without electrical runway lights that are too hard to maintain in the frozen environment.
McGann told New Zealand's national radio that the breakthrough flight could mean year-round supply flights for U.S. and New Zealand science bases on the ice.
Traditionally, the onset of the southern hemisphere winter in Antarctica ends flights to the frozen continent for six months as the sun sinks below the horizon.
"At the moment, we make that last trip in February and then don't come back until August," McGann said. "If we can go in and out a couple of times a month, we can go and get people out or drop more people off."
The head of the New Zealand government's Antarctic research body, Lou Sanson, told The Associated Press that the flight was a technological achievement that would allow the U.S. Air Force to operate virtually around-the-clock on the harshest continent on Earth.
"I think the most significant advantage is medical evacuation," he said.
At least three major medical evacuations have been carried out from Antarctic bases in recent years, including an emergency flight for a U.S. doctor at the South Pole who had developed breast cancer.
Sanson said the night-flight breakthrough also opens new opportunities for research.
"If we look ahead 10 years, it may offer important new opportunities for winter science, be it the study of sea life growth or emperor penguins in winter — it gives the ability to put scientists into there for a short time rather than the whole winter," he said.