Exploring Antarctica by air. Words by Tim Duggan

By Tim Duggan, 21/1/2015

The vast, white wilderness of Antarctica is our planet’s most mysterious environment. Barely explored, the continent is literally weighed down by the immense sheets of snow and ice that blanket it. It is the coldest, driest place on earth – the final frontier, exerting an almost magnetically attractive force over mankind. TIM DUGGAN experienced the icy continent from above on a specially chartered Qantas flight. All photos by VINCENT ROMMELAERE.


IT’S not every flight that begins with a squeal and applause the moment the plane’s wheels first leave the tarmac, but then again, it’s not every flight that leaves to explore Antarctica by air.

Antarctica is one of the planet’s most fascinating destinations: the highest, driest, windiest, emptiest, coldest place on Earth. Two hundred years after first being discovered, Antarctica holds a fascination for a lot of people. It was this curiosity that drew me to a flight with 260 others to spend a day flying low over the Southernmost continent on a specially chartered Qantas 747.

Operated by Antarctica Flights for over 20 years (who have now taken 40,000 passengers to view the continent in comfort), the return day flight takes off several times a year each summer from various Australian airports, spending about 14 total hours in the air.

The anticipation for the Antarctica Flight begins well before the first squeal. A pre-flight package gives you all the basic information to read up on before your board, plus a map of the continent that shows you just how large this place really is (it’s twice the land size of Australia).

Then things start getting a bit strange at the airport. Technically it’s a flight from Brisbane (in this case) to, well, Brisbane, so the plane never lands and you don’t need a passport. We leave at 7.30am one balmy Sunday morning and return to the same airport at 9.30pm that night. The ticket you receive at the boarding gate only adds to the oddities. Destination? “Mystery flight” it says.

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But it’s no mystery. We know exactly where we’re going. The giant penguin suit wandering in the destination hall is a dead giveaway, as are the lanyards hanging around the necks of the crowd milling around the departure gate. They all read the same thing – “the world’s most unique sightseeing flight” – and it’s hard to argue with that.

The trip from Australia to Antarctica goes by surprisingly quick, with a jovial atmosphere, open bar, Qantas breakfast service and screening of Antarctica documentaries on the in-flight screens. The Qantas pilots also break up the trip, radio-ing down to the Aurora Australis icebreaker that ferries scientists and supplies to the Australian base on the ice. It was hard to hold back a small tear when Robert, one of the 80 people currently living at the Antarctica camp for the summer, comes onto the radio to speak to his wife who was a passenger on our plane.

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IT takes around five hours ’til you glimpse your first iceberg floating majestically in the Southern Ocean, and it’s a view that you’re not quite prepared for. Dotted throughout the jigsaw patterns of thawing sea ice, massive icebergs the size of city blocks float around aimlessly, their sides carved straight by freezing winds and snow.

The chartered Qantas flight is unlike any other plane ride you’ve ever been on; it’s the closest thing to a party in the sky. The amazing Qantas staff (shout outs to Vanessa, Marnie, Simon, Cameron and Jody!) seem to have just as much fun as the passengers, and the mood is obvious right from take off, with clapping, cheering and excited gasps when we finally reach the edges of Antarctica.

For the next four spectacular hours the pilots expertly circle around areas of interest, dip their wings for better views, and even socialise in the main cabin for photos and questions (there are two Captains on board).

Although there is a formal rotation system so that everyone gets a view at some stage, not many people stay in their seats. There are lots of windows to crowd around to best take in the scenes outside and impromptu social gatherings start popping up all over the place. The view is like nothing else on Earth, and this was – quite literally – just the tip of the iceberg.

The white cliffs of Antarctica soar out of the sea, stark white barriers to the most unvisited continent on Earth. As the plane loops and soars at a pretty low 10,000 feet, you see the vast expanses of white nothingness below (a common question was “is that clouds or ice?”), where the sheer magnitude of this untouched place starts to slowly sink in.

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THE sights are numerous and awe-inspiring. And besides the views outside your window there are so many small things that add to the occasion.

There’s a radio call down to a researcher at the Australian base, plus the startling fact that one of our guests onboard is 94-year-old John Russell, one of the only surviving members of the Mawson party who set up Australia’s first base on the continent in 1954. This was the first time he’d been back to Antarctica.

The facts are pretty hard to comprehend – the land mass of Antarctica is 14 million square kilometres, double the size of Australia, and when the sea around it starts to freeze it grows to around around three times the size. It’s the highest continent on Earth if you measure from the top of the ice, and the lowest if you measure the rock underneath the ice. Almost three quarters of the world’s fresh water is in Antarctica yet it is a desert where it never rains, and it contains a startling 90% of the world’s ice. It’s all of these anomalies that attracts people to this one-of-a-kind day trip.

This is very accessible exploration, viewing one of the world’s greatest undiscovered wonders all from the comfort of your airline seat sipping champagne.

After a full day in the air, we head back to Brisbane, the excited anticipation happily morphing into a satisfied appreciation. It’s been one very memorable sight-seeing trip, and as the plane pulls onto the runway the crowd cheers with elation one final time.

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Antarctica Flights charters a Qantas 747 and flies over Antarctica several times a year. Get all of the details here.