Runway project clears the way for improved Antarctic airlift

The US Air Force has certified a newly constructed glacial ice runway near Antarctica’s McMurdo Station as capable of handling large military cargo jets.

The certification is said to mark an important improvement in the US Antarctic Program’s (USAP) ability to support science research for the National Science Foundation (NSF) on Earth’s southernmost continent.

A US Air Force C-141 Starlifter cargo plane is said to have landed safely on the compacted snow pavement of the existing Pegasus runway near the USAP’s logistical hub at McMurdo on January 29.

Preparation of the runway pavement required the use of 100-ton pneumatic tire rollers to compact a thin snow cover, turning the snow into white ice, a material sturdy enough to handle four-engine military transport aircraft.

The addition of this white ice pavement reportedly allows all-season landings of wheeled aircraft in the Antarctic for the first time in history. Currently, ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules cargo aircraft flown by the New York Air National Guard transport much of the cargo and many of the passengers to Antarctica.

The newly developed compaction process protects the runway from sun damage while having the structural strength necessary to withstand the stresses imposed by the landing of large aircraft such as the C-5 Galaxy, one of the world’s largest aircraft; the C-17 Globemaster and the older C-141s.

Without a cover of snow as protection, the warm temperatures and high sun angles during the height of the Antarctic summer would have damaged the runway.

Prior to the US Air Force’s certification of the Pegasus runway to handle the larger cargo aircraft, wheeled aircraft were able to land on the continent only very early and very late in the research season on runways that at other times of the year are useable only by ski-equipped planes.