Fixed wing aircraft have been vital to Australian science and logistics in Antarctica.

RAAF Antarctic Flight

For many decades, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Antarctic Flight assisted the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) to explore, map and survey using a variety of fixed wing aircraft.

On ANARE’s first voyage in 1947, a Vickers Supermarine Walrus crewed by the RAAF Antarctic Flight was transported to Heard Island. After only one week on the island, it was destroyed by a storm. In the same summer, a Vought Sikorsky Kingfisher seaplane was transported south by the Wyatt Earp. Despite difficulties in launching and retrieving the aircraft, the Kingfisher was used for 2 one-hour reconnaissance flights near the Ninnis and Mertz Glaciers.

In 1951, a RAAF Lincoln aircraft carried out an airdrop of medical supplies and fresh food to Macquarie Island. This practice was resumed later in the 1970s.

In 1953, ANARE purchased two Auster Mark 6 aircraft. The aircraft had seen Antarctic service on the 1949–52 Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition. ANARE planned to use the Auster aircraft on the 1954 expedition to establish Mawson station. During the voyage on the Kista Dan, the Austers were damaged in a storm. A composite aircraft using parts from both, was built in the ship’s hold. The aircraft had no flaps and required great skill to fly. It was later lost overboard on the Kista Dan during a hurricane. The Auster which had been cannibalised for parts was then rebuilt by the Royal Victorian Aero Club, and used by ANARE for reconnaissance photography and field support from 1955–59.

Other years were not without mishap. During this time, RAAF Antarctic Flight operated De Havilland DHC-2 Beavers across a range of locations between the Wilkes and Mawson coasts. In 1959, blizzards destroyed two Beavers stationed on the plateau inland from Mawson at Gwamm.

From 1956–63, the RAAF Dakota Douglas DC3 aircraft were based year-round at Mawson. These planes were used to survey over a million square kilometres of Australian Antarctic Territory including the vast and remote Prince Charles Mountains. In 1960, a Dakota was delivered to Mawson on board the Thala Dan. Shortly after being reassembled, it was damaged in a handling mishap. The Dakota, repositioned at Rumdoodle in readiness for operations the following summer, was completely destroyed by a blizzard which blew it 6 km across the ice.

In 1963, ANARE’s increased use of helicopters and the routing of Australia’s defence resources to the Vietnam War, signalled the end of RAAF Antarctic Flight year-round operations.

Targeted support

After 1963, ANARE chartered fixed wing aircraft such as the Pilatus Porter PC-6 and the CASA 212–400 from commercial operators for intracontinental support. However, over the years RAAF have provided targeted intercontinental support to the Australian Antarctic Program.

In 1970, a RAAF No. 11 Squadron Orion maritime reconnaissance aircraft flew over Macquarie Island at 300 feet, dropping mail to waving expeditioners. In 1977, another flight dropped storepedoes of food to resupply Macquarie Island station.

In 1978, Australia entered into a cooperative air transport agreement with the United States and New Zealand. This involved two US ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules summer flights between the McMurdo station and the Casey ski landing area, in return for RAAF wheeled C-130 Hercules flights between Christchurch and McMurdo. Up until 1983, 7 flights were made on the McMurdo-Casey route by US Navy aircraft, and 19 flights on the New Zealand-McMurdo route by the RAAF carrying cargo and personnel.

At this time, the RAAF Hercules C-130 aircraft also supported operations at Macquarie Island with 2 or 3 airdrops targeting the narrow 3-second drop zone on the island’s isthmus during an 8-hour non-stop flight.

In 2015–16, the RAAF C-17A Globemaster III successfully delivered over 109 tonnes of heavy lift cargo to and from Wilkins Aerodrome, conducted an airdrop of four heliboxes from 500 feet, and simulated an emergency aeromedical evacuation.

Fixed wing aircraft today

Today, Australia’s Antarctic aviation system consists of an intercontinental chartered air service from Hobart to Wilkins Aerodrome near Casey station, and intracontinental services provided by fixed wing aircraft operators that link the stations and provide access to other areas of the continent for scientific field work.