Peter Garrett is facing an icy test as minister responsible for Antarctica on his return from Bali next week.

There is more than a hint of disarray in the air lift program between Hobart and the $46 million Wilkins Blue Ice Runway 70 kilometres from Casey.

The runway that honours Australia’s bi-polar aviator and adventurer Sir Hubert Wilkins is abundantly ready. The jet that will serve it has performed perfectly on test missions between Christchurch and McMurdo Sound and on Monday night’s historic first sortie from Hobart.

But the approvals needed from CASA for the flights to begin have, for whatever reason, taken so long that the air lift program that was originally intended to run from mid-October to mid-February seems hard put to achieve a target of 200 personnel plus six tonnes of high priority equipment over a schedule of around 20 flights.

At least that was the target claimed for the program up until a year ago when all fell silent at an official level.

The provisional schedule as leaked as recently as this morning is for only seven missions on the Skytraders Airbus A319 between 14 December and 14 February.

The jet flew empty of payload as a private flight to make the first landing at the runway on Monday night, pending the issuing of its air operator certificate or AOC.

History was made without hoopla. There was no Minister, no department heads, no flags, no speeches.

The small Airbus will normally ferry between 20-30 passengers plus polar kit per flight, depending on cargo needs, and is intended to bring in research teams for “short stay” missions connecting to turbo-props at Wilkins and then take them home before the long polar days slide into a very long months of frigid twilight and darkness.

But with half the season gone, the logistical options are under stress.

Sea sickness pills anyone?

 

Ben Sandilands flew on the original evaluation flight from McMurdo to Lanyon Junction, a potential runway site near Casey, in a US ski-equipped Hercules in January 1979. On board was the first Federal Minister for Science and the Environment, Senator Jim Webster, whose vision of an air link between the continent of ice and the wide brown land has finally become a reality.

Peter Fray

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