Two Australian-owned support aircraft on skis have returned after their first full season of operation supporting scientific research in Antarctica.

The two CASA 212s flew to Hobart early last Sunday morning. One has returned to its base in Sydney while the other continued on to Canberra yesterday.

Australian Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Senator Ian Campbell, said the aircraft had clocked up more than 300 hours of flying time this season, covering 100,000 kms.

“Around 225 hours were in support of science projects, one of which is the significant AMISOR project. This Amery Ice Shelf Ocean Research is a major ongoing climate change research programme which has involved taking ice cores from the ice shelf and at the same time retrieving data from the ocean beneath,” Senator Campbell said.

Senator Campbell said that 91 hours were flown taking expeditioners between stations in Antarctica.

“Until the CASAs came on line it was not possible to transfer expeditioners between stations except by ship,” Senator Campbell said.

“It is essential for us to have this capability so we can move people around more quickly, allowing us to work with greater efficiency in Antarctica.

“As we move closer to the introduction of the air link between Australia and Antarctica we need to be sure that we have a reliable system in place once expeditioners arrive in Antarctica to do their work.

“In the meantime, work has been underway on the preparation of the glacial blue-ice runway to land the long-range aircraft that will come on line in 2007–08.

“Specialist equipment was taken south earlier in the season to begin construction of the airstrip which will be known as Wilkins Ice Runway, 60 kms inland from Casey station.

“This runway will be a unique engineering feat in what is one of the most remote and challenging sites on the planet.

“Once the new air link is up and running more senior researchers will be inclined to go to Antarctica knowing that their return trip will take a fraction of the time taken by ship.

“We are on the brink of an exciting new era for Australia’s Antarctic programme and the air link will contribute to a more solid collaboration with our international colleagues.”

Trial flights between Hobart and Antarctica are scheduled for 2006–07.

Video footage of the CASAs operating in Antarctica is available on request.