Ice landing: Icelandair Boeing 767 completes 20,000-mile journey to Antarctica

Mar 1, 2021

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It’s not every day that a commercial plane flies to the bottom of the Earth. But COVID-19 has required many airlines to make special trips to repatriate citizens — most recently, Icelandair.

The Nordic airline flew over 20,000 miles on a special flight to Antarctica to taxi Norwegian researchers from South Africa to the Troll Research Station (AT27) near the South Pole and then fly another group of researchers back to Oslo (OSL).

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While this isn’t the first commercial plane that’s landed in Antarctica (that honour goes to a Boeing 757 back in 2015), it’s still a novel occurrence because of the extremely icy and windy conditions and the very short flight season.

Why this flight was special

For one, the Icelandair flight to and from Antarctica is over 20,000 miles round-trip — a lengthy journey for a 20-year-old Boeing 767-300. The flight legs between Iceland to South Africa covered over 7,000 miles each way alone.

But beyond the challenge of the distance was the unique flight conditions of flying to Antarctica. Not only are pilots dealing with potentially high-speed winds and snow, but they also have to land on ice!

It takes highly-experienced pilots and a lot of planning for a flight to Antarctica, which is one of the many reasons why most travel to the continent is made by boat.

Related: Why there are almost no transoceanic flights in the Southern Hemisphere

Icelandair Boeing 767-300
(Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

How they made it happen

The flight was made possible by a lot of planning, a light passenger payload and a larger-than-normal flight crew.

With a full flight, the Boeing 767 likely wouldn’t have been able to make the trip. But since the plane was carrying far from a full flight of passengers, it was able to make it without issue.

According to Icelandair, the flight required a 20-person crew: six pilots, 12 other crew members and one flight engineer. With a larger crew, pilots were able to rest along the way and better navigate the risky ice-covered landing strip.

Of course, there is also a lot of on-the-ground planning into flight conditions, weather forecasting and risk assessment for every flight landing in Antarctica as well to ensure the risk isn’t too great for flight crew and passengers.

Bottom line

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen more and more unique flights happen to repatriate citizens, but a commercial jet flying to Antarctica is a special case even among the many special flights that have taken place over the past year.

Expensive charter flights can be booked by tourists as part of destination packages to Antarctica, but there are no regularly-scheduled commercial flights that make the trip to Antarctica during its short flying season from Dec. to Feb. Cruises and other sailing expeditions are more common, but getting to Antarctica is still a rarity for most travellers.

Icelandair did announce plans to share more about the airline’s adventure to the South Pole in the coming weeks, citing that “snow, ice and wind are our elements.”

Featured image by Galen Rowell/Getty Images. 

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