Airbus A340 with passengers lands in remote Antarctic glacier

Written by Daniel Bennett, CNN

To hear this Airbus A340 tell it, it might have looked like something out of “Star Wars” or a scene from “The Three Musketeers.”

“I found myself here today, for some reason,” said Sabine Kort, talking of the moment she spotted the aircraft stuck in a snowy mountain pass north of Hobart, Australia.

The airway passes just down the way from town’s namesake Outback Air. When she turned onto it and saw the aircraft for herself, there was no question about where the dots came from.

“I have Air Navigation Technology, so the main path is Air Traffic Control,” she said. “When I got out I saw it as the look-out for the main runway.”

Unusual sight

If only all airplanes were this A-Type. Airbus/Darren O’Brien

This is the first time a plane has landed on this particular stretch of Antarctica, said lead scientist Peter Runge of the Australian Antarctic Division.

“Certainly this event has taken the engineers a lot of time — more than the usual time, but it is an extraordinary event,” he said.

The record had been held by a Soviet-made Ilyushin Il-76 transport plane from the Soviet Union. (That is the image above.) Runge is certain he had never seen the smaller Mir-28 by itself until today.

It is not an easy place to land on. The brief landing was punctuated by calls from members of the Heli-Operations team stationed on the ice to signal for help, said Runge. It was perhaps too busy out on the runway to reply, he added.

The aircraft touched down on the frozen sea of Bass Strait, a body of water more than 5,400 kilometers (3,100 miles) from Hobart, said Runge. Its passengers, two Australians, took a short boat ride to Hobart airport.

Runge and his colleagues are working in Antarctica to combat climate change and improve the scientific record in the harshest environment on the planet. They are also investigating how much melting ice is contributing to current global sea level rise.

The landing was a mammoth job for the heli-operations team in Australia, who managed the entire process with precision. Runge said the program was “hugely effective.”

“It’s the longest route we take around the world. It is in itself incredible,” he said.

Hobart airport sits at an altitude of 1,500 meters (5,920 feet) above sea level. Runge said he was assured the airstrip was not unsafe for the flight.

“With the ground velocity, you can calculate if you have a cabin altitude below that, because the cabin will be so high, it will still stay below that,” he said.

But less than a day into a new operation, it was clear that the arrival of the A340 was already forging historical links.

Sharing the stage

A physicist named Daniel Blakely was also at the airport to see it happen.

“It is a fantastic example of global aviation getting together,” he said. “Without international cooperation we don’t get anything. It should be a credit to Airbus.”

The A340 is no ordinary airliner. It is named after the French engineer, scientist and director of aviation Pierre de Coubertin, whose efforts laid the foundations for modern aviation. (The A380 is named after his namesake, St. Jean de Luz, the patron saint of aviation.)

“It is astonishing that they would launch this service in this day and age and they would dedicate the name of the aircraft to the man who gave rise to modern aeronautics and ultimately the modern airline,” said Blakely.

Kort agreed.

“I think it is the most significant thing to happen for aviation in a long time,” she said.

Airbus will run regular flights to Hobart from November, but will retire it next year. The replacement of the aging A340 is part of a broader effort by the European aviation company to turn its attention away from the dated A380.

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