Flying through the air

An interview with a pilot

A twin otter (note two propellors) lands on the runway

Rothera has four twin-otter aeroplanes and one larger Dash-7. The twin otters land on skis and are the robust little landrovers of the Antarctic. They can land anywhere that is flat and snowy, and they can raise their skis to land on blue ice or gravel. Versatile and compact, they also have an extremely short take off and landing. They do, however, have a smaller payload when compared to the Baslers used by some other nations.

Introducing Adam

Adam The Pilot

Adam The Pilot started life as an engineer, and has a degree in engineering from Durham University. How first Antarctic experience was as a Field Assistant (in fact, he has previously worked at Ablation Point!), but enjoyed flying in Antarctica so much that he wanted a career change. After several years of training and working with some large operators, Adam is back in the Antarctic.

A pilot in the Real World

Before coming down South, Adam was flying Aer Lingus Airbusses. When flying in large international airports, pilots are responsible for overseeing the fueling and loading, most of which can be overseen from the flight deck. There are stewards to look after the passengers, and engineers on call at all times. Large airports have larger runways and approach aids to allow landing in bad weather. These approach aids include radio beacons that mean pilots can land safely in zero visibility. The airports have more facilities including more lights, air traffic controllers, radar, trucks to move the planes around, people to shepherd passengers, catering vans, and so on and on.

A unique environment

A plane approaching the gravel runway at Rothera

At Rothera, things are somewhat different. Adam must have a much more hands-on approach, seeing to the refuelling and loading, and there are certainly no catering vans! If Adam wants tea, he must bring a thermos. The runway is a simple gravel strip with no lighting, no radar, no radio approach aids, no lines painted on it and occasional runway obstruction by seals or penguins. This means that the pilots cannot land in poor visibility, or in blowing snow or low cloud.

However, the pilots have a lot more freedom. Rather than relying on autopilot, the pilots must actually control the plane at all times. They can fly low over the scenery, buzz field parties, and deviate from their route if they like. The pilots see more of Antarctica than anyone else, but often only a snapshot, and never for long. Another difference is the co-pilot; rather than a fully qualified pilot, they are lumbered with an ‘assistant’, who may never have been in a small plane before and almost certainly has never flown one before.

Landing the plane on George VI Ice Shelf

And finally, the biggest difference in being an Antarctic pilot is that the twin otters can land on snow. The pilots raise or lower the skis depending on where they are landing; they can land almost anywhere flat and snowy. They can raise their skis to land on wheels on ice. When landing somewhere unknown, without someone on the ground, the pilots trail skis to check for crevasses. Once they are convinced that landing is safe, they will circle again and land exactly in their tracks.

The pilots must always be prepared to land and stay overnight. A worst case scenario would be a blind landing in poor visibility, with no one on the ground, untested snow and ice conditions, and no approach aids. This could be forced, for example, by sudden poor weather at Rothera, forcing a last-minute diversion. The pilots always have the equipment to safely set up a camp, and carry field rations for three people for 5 days.

Training and development

A plane comes to visit at Ablation Point

In order to fly in Antarctica, the pilots have to have a minimum of 2500 hours of flying. Before coming to Antarctica, Adam had about 4000 hours of flying experience, but none of that was in a twin otter or a Dash-7, none was on skis or ice, and none was in such a remote and snowy environment.  This is Adam’s first season flying as a BAS pilot, and upon arrival at Rothera in November, Adam spent a couple of weeks flying under the supervision of the chief pilot and head of training, Alan Meredith. Together, they practised various scenarios until Adam was proficient to fly alone.

Adam is limited to 100 hours of flying in 28 days, but other than that has a reasonable amount of flexibility. This is his first season South, but is looking forward to returning.

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