Wilkins Aerodrome – which is located about 70km south-east of Casey research station - is described by the Australian government as “a 3.5 kilometre engineering marvel built on the surface of a moving glacier”.
Aerodrome manager Jeff Hadley said that a crew of seven Aerodrome staff and earthmoving specialists have cleared about 20,000t of glacial ice from the runway strip over the summer months.
“This is essentially a large earthmoving project to clear ice away that has built up, along the northern edge of runway over ten years of operation,” he said.
It is the first major facelift for the runway strip since Australia’s Wilkins Aerodrome near its Casey research station opened more than a decade ago.
An Airbus A319 passenger jet carrying 17 Australian expeditioners and crew flew the 7,000km round trip to the runway yesterday.
Flights are scheduled throughout the remainder of the season to bring people, supplies and scientific samples between Antarctica and Australia, including an Australian Air Force C-17 flight this week to retrieve a shipment of ice cores drilled at Law Dome.
“Snowfall, wind and poor visibility has made it slow going at times, but the crew has managed to take advantage of the clear days to make some good progress,” said Hadley. “It has been a massive effort from everyone down here to get all the work done and the runway open for the remainder of the season.”
The construction work will continue over the next few seasons to remove remaining ice to enable the runway to operate into the future.
Hadley said despite the many frustrations and challenges, it’s one of the most interesting and rewarding jobs in construction he has experienced. ““Building and maintaining a runway on the surface of 500-metre thick Antarctic glacier is not your average construction job, that’s for sure,” he said. “It takes a lot of planning, hard work, and team effort to maintain a runway on the surface of a glacier that is constantly shifting and bending, along with the challenges when the ice warms up in the height of summer. The weather in Antarctica is always a force to be reckoned with, but you also need to be ready to deal a range of unexpected situations like emergency flights and broken equipment.”
He added: “There’s no spare parts supplier down here, so you basically need to be very well prepared and adaptable.”