First Ever Intercontinental Flight from Cape Town Lands at Perseus Airstrip
On 22 November, the new Perseus Airstrip, located just 60 km north of the Princess Elisabeth Station, welcomed its first ever intercontinental flight when an Ilyushin 76 plane carrying the first scientists of the 2019-2020 season from Cape Town touched down just after 18:00 UTC.
The Perseus Airstrip is now part of DROMLAN (Dronning Maud Land Air Network), which is responsible for all air logistics in the Dronning Maud Land region of East Antarctica. Under ALCI (Antarctic Logistics Center International), a Russian logistics service provider in DROMLAN based in South Africa, the new airstrip is maintained by the BELARE (Belgian Antarctic Research Expedition) team members and will allow savings of both time and money for scientists doing research at the Princess Elisabeth Station and its vicinity.
An ideal location
Situated at 71°25’42” South and 23°33’57” East, the 3 km-long Perseus Airstrip sits atop a blue ice field close to rounded nunatak called Romnoes. The climate at this location is quite dry, with very little snow accumulation. This is due in part to the fact that the airstrip sits on the leeward side of Romnoes, allowing it to be partially protected from katabatic winds from Antarctica’s interior, and snow accumulation. This makes bulldozing maintenance to smooth out the airstrip easier than it would be at other locations.
Sitting on solid blue ice in a cold environment that never goes below freezing also means that the airstrip won’t be at risk of melting during the austral summer, which can sometimes happen at stations at the coast when temperatures get warmer.
Great benefits to science
The new airstrip is within a few hours’ driving distance from the PEA station and is a huge money saver for research projects.
“Before the Perseus airstrip was built, scientists used to have to fly to the Russian Novo (Novolazarevskaya) Station 450 km further to the west and take a feeder flight to get to the Princess Elisabeth Station,” explained Henri Robert, the International Polar Foundation’s Science Liaison Officer and one of the passengers on the first inter-continental flight to touch down at the new airstrip. “Sometimes bad weather could hold up scientists at Novo for days or even a week, and that’s a big loss of time if you only have four weeks to do your research project. Now, thanks to the new airstrip, scientists have the chance to land within driving distance of the station. Since a feeder flight is no longer needed between Novolazarevskaya and PEA for these flights, the cost of the overall bill to transport people and cargo to the station can be drastically reduced. This offers more opportunities to bring heavy scientific equipment directly in the vicinity of the station.
When Henri arrived, he and he other scientists were driven to the Princess Elisabeth Station by members of the BELARE team in customised Toyota Hiluxes. The journey took less than four hours. The following day, a separate BELARE crew used Printoth tractors to haul to the station the scientists’ equipment along with supplies for the station, including fresh food from South Africa.
“In terms of convenience and savings, building this airstrip has been well worth the investment of time and effort,” Henri stated.
Contribution to infrastructure
The Perseus Airstrip project has been in the works over the past two seasons, during which time the BELARE team has been responsible for its construction and maintenance.
This activity is part of the contribution the BELARE team makes to DROMLAN. Each station in the DROMLAN region in East Antarctica agrees to take part in the maintenance of common logistical infrastructure every research team in the region uses. Before the arrival of the first intercontinental flight, BELARE team members bulldozed the surface of the airstrip to keep it smooth for landings, and will continue to do so as needed as part of their contribution to the network.
During the 2019-2020 season, members of the BELARE team who took part in constructing the overwintering garage at the Winterpark just 2 km from the Princess Elisabeth Station will work with ALCI to construct a hangar at Perseus to house maintenance vehicles such as firefighting truck and bulldozers that will be used to maintain the airstrip.
This hangar will add to the mobile infrastructure installed at the site, including living containers with amenities such as beds and toilets.
Picture: First ever intercontinental flight from Cape Town to Perseus Airstrip lands on 22 November at 18:00 UTC - © International Polar Foundation