UTAir An-74s or how is it like to land an airliner on drifting ice

Talking about extreme airports? Picture: UTAir

Talking about extreme airports? Picture: UTAir

A few days ago Wired published a story about Air New Zealand preparing to re-start airliner flights to Antarctica in one of its Boeing 767s.

This would not be the first time the Kiwi airline has Antarctica in its route map: throughout the decade of the 70s Air New Zealand was conducting panoramic flights of the frozen continent, until 1979, when flight 901 crashed on Mount Erebus, killing all 257 on board. This was the end of Antarctic panoramic flights, but a handful of other aircraft have continued to fly to the Southernmost continent, most of them military cargo aircraft, but also charter flights re-supplying the scientific bases that several countries have down there.

Unlike RNZAF Boeing 757s, the Boeing 767s Air New Zealand is planning to use for these operations, will make it possible to fly the return trip without having to refuel in Antarctica, thus saving precious supplies that can only be brought to Antarctica at a very high cost. to do the return trip to New Zealand without refueling, thus saving precious fuel (that is really costly to transport to Antarctica)

As daring as Antarctic operations might sound, though, the article explains, conditions in the summer months are not that much worse than those that might be experienced at some Alaskan or northern European airports where regular air service exists...

What about landing a jet airliner on drifting ice? 

Yes, this happens too, not in Antarctica though, but at the other end of the World, over the Arctic ice cap.

Flying as they do, for an airline that has some of the World's most extreme weather destinations in its route map, pilots at Russian airline UTAir are pretty experienced in flying in challenging conditions. Bear in mind that among UTAir's destinations are many isolated outposts deep inside Siberia and in the Russian Arctic, but perhaps the most amazing destination of all is Russian Arctic research station Barneo, located at a latitude 89 degrees North, just 110km. South of the North Pole!

Barneo is actually not a permanent settlement, the base is used only during the month of April when local conditions are optimal for the activities that several Russian research institutes conduct on-site. These scientists (and the occasional tourist!) and their supplies are flown to Barneo's compacted snow runway in Antonov An-74 aircraft, specially adapted for Arctic operations and operated by UTAir Cargo, a subsidiary of Russian airline UTAir.

The Antonov An-74 is quite a curious looking aircraft because of its weird engine configuration. Because of this distinctive feature, the An-74 is also known as Cheburashka (Чебура́шка in Russian) makes it look like the popular Soviet cartoon character.

UTAir flies to Barneo from the Russian mainland, but also from Norway's Svalbard archipielago. Although, given recent controversies on the sovereignty of Arctic waters, and given that Barneo's airfield is actually floating on top of the Ocean, I remain in doubt as to whether any of these flights can actually be considered international...

A drifting airport

As you might imagine,  the coordinates of Barneo's airfield are not always the same, as it sits on drifting ice. I guess it is also the Northernmost landing strip on Earth, at least the Northernmost serviced by jet aircraft!

It must be quite an experience to land there and although Barneo Arctic station might not come up on your usual flight booking engine, some of those that have been there have taken the time to upload some videos on youtube. Enjoy!

Here is a view from the cockpit of an Antonov An-74 landing at Barneo Arctic runway

And here is the view from land when an An-74 is taking off, bound for the Continent