It takes an extraordinary amount of time and effort to prepare the ice runway at Wilkins for the first flight of the summer research season but nothing is simple when you’re working on a glacier.

The three kilometre runway shifts from being a straight line to a banana-like curve over winter as the glacier moves and is barely visible under the snow.

It is aviation operations lead Aaron Read’s job to make sure it is surveyed, realigned, strength-tested and ready to go by the time the first plane arrives in October.

“Every year varies but usually there’s usually about 100 mm to half a metre of snow covering about 60 per cent of the runway and this year was a typical year,” he said.

“Last year wasn’t. There was very high snowfall and we’re still dealing with that.”

Snow clearing usually takes three to four weeks and then proof-testing begins.

“You have to ‘proof’ that the runway can withstand a certain force”

A normal runway is given a number denoting its strength but things are done differently when the runway is made of ice.

Crews use what is called a proof roller, weighing 88 tonnes, to roll over the top of the runway and identify pockets where the ice is weaker. Those holes are then filled in and retested.

Proof rolling takes about 22 hours and is done continuously, up and down the runway, changing drivers when required.

“You have to ‘proof’ that the runway can withstand a certain force, and that force is greater than the force the aircraft will place on it,” Mr Read said.

“This year we had 405 failures so we had to repair 405 areas, taking about two very hard days to repair.”

Finally, in the days before the first flight arrives, workers run a tiller up and down the runway to produce ice shavings, which then freeze and create enough traction for the plane’s wheels.

The wind speed has to be under 20 knots though, or the shavings fly away.

Busy season ahead as major science projects go remote

This year will be a particularly busy season for the aerodrome, with 21 flights coming in carrying huge cargo loads and dozens of scientists working on projects like the Denman Terrestrial Campaign and the Million Year Ice Core.

The first flight, an Airbus A319, is scheduled to land at Wilkins on October 27, with flights every few days until the temperature rises to above −5° in December.

“As soon as it’s warmer than that, the runway has to close and we have to re-proof it before it can open again,” Mr Read said.

Wilkins opens for flights again in early February when it cools down, before closing for winter in early March.

Worker links to mining, construction

All the preparation work this year was done by a team of five plant operators and a camp support person, based at Casey Station during the winter.

A combination of loaders, dozers and tractors are stored at Wilkins over the winter but serviced at Casey so workers have to drive the machines four hours each way every month or so to get them ready.

In August, the team heads back up the hill to build the Wilkins camp and garage area and moves in permanently to start work on the runway itself.

“This year we had six staff rather than our usual four and it’s made a huge difference,” Mr Read said.

“They tend to come from the mining or construction industry because it’s all about operating heavy machinery.

“You wouldn’t necessarily think it but there are similarities – you're dealing with isolation and long hours. They’re often not used to the cold but that doesn’t tend to be a major thing and snow has some similar properties to sand.”