A pilot has successfully landed an aircraft in the Antarctica using night-vision goggles, a feat hailed on Saturday as historic and could lead to year-round flights to the frozen continent.
The pilot of the US Air Force Globemaster flew from Christchurch in New Zealand to the US Antarctica base at McMurdo Sound overnight on Thursday in the first such mission, described as risky.
The pioneering flight opens up the possibility of safe landings during the long, dark, polar winter when the sun disappears for months.
Scientists could be dropped off or picked up at any time of the year if such flights went ahead and medical evacuations could become feasible in winter.
Lieutenant Colonel Jim McGann, the commander of the New Zealand-based Operation Deep Freeze, described the mission as “dangerous stuff”.
He said the risk was high, but the aircraft’s lights reflected well off traffic cones on the runway, allowing it to get down without electric runway lights that are hard to maintain in the intense cold.
“The goggles were fantastic, the outline and runway were perfectly clear and we could see it from three miles and rolled right in. A picture perfect landing,” he told Television New Zealand.
Antarctica New Zealand chief executive Lou Sanson said the night-time touchdown opened the way for a greater level of research throughout the year as well as ensuring winter medical evacuations could be carried out.
“This was an historic event. It will certainly bring a measure of reassurance to those at McMurdo and (New Zealand’s) Scott Base over the winter.”
Bryan Storey, a professor of Antarctic Studies at Canterbury University, told The Press newspaper that the middle of winter and early spring could now be studied by scientists specially flown in at those times.
The behaviour of sea ice and atmospheric phenomena could all fall into this category, he said.
“You can take people out and bring people in which allows for a better use of time and is definitely beneficial,” he said.