Trial construction of a snow and ice runway inland of Australia’s Casey station in Antarctica will begin soon, a major step towards establishing a planned air link between Hobart and the frozen continent.

Australia is one of the last countries with a major presence in Antarctica still relying solely on shipping to supply its stations and transport scientists to and from the continent.

Antarctic supply ship Polar Bird, which sails from Hobart for Casey today, will carry plant and special-purpose equipment for construction of the runway. The compacted snow runway will be built on glacial ice which, in the freezing conditions, has a surface similar to sandpaper enabling planes to land.

Parliamentary Secretary for the Antarctic Dr Sharman Stone said that the construction trials, which would begin this summer, would enable the runway to be completed in the 2003/04 summer.

“The ability to travel to Antarctica by air will allow scientists and support personnel quicker access to the ice and make Australia’s Antarctic research program more efficient and flexible,” said Dr Stone. “Senior scientists cannot always commit four weeks for a round trip in summer with a strong chance of them being stuck in sea ice for weeks at a time.”

The Australian Antarctic Division’s Air Transport project manager Charlton Clark said that project team had worked closely with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to ensure the runway would meet strict safety standards. “The construction of a snow and ice runway minimises the impact on the environment and is also a cost-effective solution,” Mr Clark said.

“The field program this summer includes selection of the runway site, preliminary construction trials, deployment of additional automatic weather stations and the establishment of an environmental monitoring program.

“Technical assistance for the construction of the runway is being provided by George Blaisdell, a world expert in ice runway construction from the Cold Region Research and Engineering Laboratory in the United States,” said Mr Clark.

Sydney-based company, Skytraders, have proposed the use a 16-seat Falcon wide-body passenger jet to provide the link to Casey. Personnel travelling beyond Casey to Davis, Mawson or remote sites would transfer to a ski-equipped CASA 212 aircraft.

Dr Stone said “the fact that jets can fly between Hobart and Casey without the need to refuel in Antarctica would minimise the risk of fuel spills and reduce the need to transport and store aviation fuel there. This is very good news for the environment.

“A high level of passenger safety would also be offered by such an air service in the case of inclement weather in Antarctica, with the long-range jet being capable of return flights to Australia without landing.”