November 29, 2020

Aircraft Don’t Fly Over The South Pole? See Why!

Why don’t planes overfly the South Pole ?

Source: Simple Flying

The South Pole has always had a tough reputation. Cold, icy, mountainous, and generally not very welcoming for humans. But when you’re flying high on a plane, you usually don’t notice what’s going on at ground level. Yet aircraft rarely, if ever, overfly the South Pole, and even flights over the Antarctic landmass are unusual. Why is this?

Why don’t planes overfly the South Pole ?
Why don’t planes overfly the South Pole ? Photo: NASA

South Pole flights theoretically possible but rarely done

Historically, flying close to or over the South Pole was ruled out by ETOPS rules. ETOPS govern how far away twin-engine jets can fly from an airport. For a long time, the ruling was 180 minutes for big twin-engine jets. That was increased to 330 minutes (or five a half hours) early last decade for modern airliners with their newer and more reliable engines.

That meant a modern long-range aircraft could head across Antarctica and stay within 330 minutes of the nearest airport. So what’s to stop planes from doing so?

Firstly, there’s a lack of need to do so. There’s a lot less airline traffic in the far reaches of the southern hemisphere compared to the northern hemisphere. For example, the southern hemisphere doesn’t have the equivalent of those normally busy sub polar routes between North America and Asia.

Also, purely down to where the southern hemisphere cities are located, southern hemisphere city pairings don’t require South Pole overflights. There are a few flights that normally go close to Antarctica, but none that regularly overfly it

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There’s next to no infrastructure on the ground if planes run into trouble over the South Pole.
There’s next to no infrastructure on the ground if planes run into trouble over the South Pole Photo: NASA

Bad weather is a big issue around the South Pole

Despite modern long-range jets being theoretically capable of crossing the South Pole, it remains a pretty unfriendly environment for aircraft. The first big issue is the weather. It’s cold down there. Even at ground level, it can get to minus 80°C. At 35,000 feet, it’s even frostier. Once temperatures drop below about minus 40°C, there can be potential problems with the fuel freezing.

That kind of climate also makes ice a serious problem. It’s not just ice on the wings and the amount of de-icing fluid that would be needed when overflying the South Pole; it’s that the threat would be unrelenting while crossing the South Pole. This is a serious problem too. In 2009, ice crystals blocked the pitot tubes on an Air France A330 crossing the Atlantic. This lead to a cascading series of issues that ultimately downed the plane.

A bit like crossing the Atlantic, when things go seriously wrong, there’s not much opportunity to put the plane down safely around the South Pole. There are plans to build a 2,700-meter paved runway near Australia’s Davis research station in Antarctica, but that’s only one runway, and the Antarctic landmass is 14.2 million km². By comparison, the United States is 9.834 million km², but there are over 5,000 public airports there

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South pole
A blue ice runway in Antarctica would make for a hairy landing. Photo: Australian Antarctic Division / Australian Government News Room

Assuming the runway near Davis goes ahead, and your aircraft is in the vicinity when it needs to land, there’s the problem of visibility. The area is renowned for is whiteouts and appalling weather. A whiteout is a weather condition where the contours and landmarks in a snow-covered zone become almost indistinguishable. It can disorientate pilots, and they can lose track of their position relative to the horizon. Never good.

In 1979, an Air New Zealand Antarctic sightseeing flight flew straight into the side of a mountain, killing all onboard. There was a whole host of issues that led to this crash, and pilot disorientation was among them. The pilots never perceived the mountain directly in front of them. Over forty years later, the Mt Erebus crash still deters airlines from sending their planes towards the South Pole.

It’s not that modern planes can’t overly the South Pole. Rather it’s a combination of a couple of factors. Firstly, it remains potentially hazardous. Secondly, there is no need for them to do so, there’s no busy city pairing that requires airlines to overfly the area. As it is for people, the South Pole is a region best avoided by planes.

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