Shortly after midnight on Thursday, an Airbus A340 jetliner with a full crew of 160 took off from the southernmost city in the world. It was flying high above the South Pole, providing air travel to remote spots that for decades has been in the hands of helicopters or service yachts.
The Airbus A340-300, called the world’s largest jet, just touched down for the first time in Antarctica, transporting 19 of the world’s most important explorers – including four Americans – to what is considered one of the most remote places on Earth.
Three days into the journey, the aircraft had diverted briefly for a tire change to avoid suffering another disaster from its stunning rotors.
“This aircraft will carry the most valuable cargo the world has ever seen,” said David Holcroft, the head of marketing for Airbus. “From 3:05 AM ET (11:05 AM PT) on Thursday, the Icelander SMIT Icebreaker and Resolute icebreaker departs from McMurdo Station and King George Island to conduct polar research missions.”
The icebreaker is from the U.S. Antarctic Program, and the Polar Discovery – a Russian icebreaker – was departing from Canada. The two ships travel from landmasses in Antarctica to McMurdo Base, and then a few days later to Ross Island. The A340 — equipped with many of the modern amenities of modern air travel – took 11 hours to travel nearly 2,000 miles.
The manufacturers explained that the plane can carry 40 passengers at once, and fly twice as fast as previous versions, allowing cargo and personnel to reach remote Antarctic glaciers.
“This allows researchers to spend weeks at a time in the icy South Pole, while a helicopter can often only reach sites where they might be too expensive to fly – creating travel delays and human risk,” Airbus said.
The push to fly commercial flights in and out of Antarctica is emblematic of an increasingly routine expeditions to remote and inaccessible corners of the planet. In the 1960s, few people considered missions to the South Pole, but the space age led to an expansion of horizons.
NASA and other agencies have increasingly pushed beyond the bounds of Earth’s atmosphere, to areas that human beings had never seen from the ground.