Date of trip: 24/Feb/2019
What does it take to fly over the coldest, driest, windiest, and most inhospitable continent on Earth?
You might want to bring some sunnies, and a camera. That’s about it.
A few weeks ago, I left home at just past the crack of dawn and headed for Sydney Airport’s Domestic Terminal. Our flight? QF2904, with our boarding passes helpfully reading ‘Mystery Flight’. Of course, it’s all in jest: our destination is the least-visited continent on Earth. It almost felt a little bit exclusive.
And really, it kind of was. Antarctica Flights is the only company in the world to do chartered sightseeing flights over the great southern continent. With only four or five flights a year, it’s not wrong to say that this is an experience as rare as actually setting foot on Antarctic
soil snow. And as it is only a flight – there is no landing, it makes for a most curious Sydney-Sydney itinerary. Wheels up at 8am, back to Sydney in time for bed.
I’ve always wanted to visit Antarctica. I think, notwithstanding the cold, all of us have the same spark of curiosity. Antarctica is in many ways, one of the last great unknowns on land. A desolate place that has almost nothing, and yet teaches us so much. Plus, it’s just so damn big, and icy – yet it’s technically a desert. While I may embark on an expedition there one day, a sightseeing flight that allows me to take it in for less than a day’s effort? Done deal.
Being a sightseeing flight, seating is ya know, kinda important. With 25 years of experience, Antarctica Flights has this down pat. There are seven tiers of pricing that spans the Boeing 747’s economy, premium economy and business class seats. Most arrangements feature a seating rotation halfway during the flight, which gives everyone the fairest shot at getting a view out the window. The cheapest – appropriately named ‘economy centre’ for it spans the middle two seats in economy – does not rotate. That comes in at $1199. While that seems like a bit of a cop-out (you’re stuck in the middle and don’t even get a window!), the atmosphere on the flight was electric: people were more than happy to let others have a view out their window and everyone walks freely around the aircraft – within their own class, at least. You might not believe me, but this was a near-sold out flight, so make of that what you will.
The most expensive class – Ice Class – is a test of one’s credit limit at $7999. For that price, you’re seated in the nose of the plane, served champagne in addition to all the other business class perks and a gift pack that contains quite a collection of goodies. As with any Qantas flight, a full in-flight service that’s commensurate to one’s seating class is provided by the Qantas crew that staff the plane alongside Antarctica Flight’s own staff, who are more on hand to teach and inform.
Frequent flyers will appreciate the nerdy fact that this is one of those blue moon moments where a 747 ‘Queen of the Skies’ departs from a domestic terminal, enters international waters (the Antarctic Treaty Zone) and yet check-in doesn’t require anything more than a driver’s licence. We collected our boarding passes at the departure gate itself, rather than at the check-in counters and took in the palpable energy of those about to embark on the ‘world’s most unique day trip’. Most other passengers appeared to be seniors or three-generation families. All wore big smiles and even bigger cameras. A large contingent of them even took overseas flights for the express purpose of catching this one. Needless to say, a photo opportunity with a human-sized penguin mascot was in high demand. Heck, even a Channel 7 crew was on-board filming it all!
After grabbing our boarding passes, we shuffled back to the Qantas Domestic Business Lounge for a quick breakfast (that 6am wake-up killed…) and coffee before boarding.
We were told that the flight would be roughly 13 hours: 4.5 hours from Sydney to the first icebergs, 4 hours of flyovers of the continent itself, and then 4.5hrs back to Sydney. Other than a military exercise off the NSW coast that added half an hour to the flight time, things were pretty much bang on schedule.
It may be nearly 5 hours before we see the first bits of white that aren’t clouds, but Captain Greg Fitzgerald (as well as Captain Owen Weaver & Rob Meek, who are not coincidentally some of Qantas’ most experienced 747 pilots) played two documentaries on repeat through the in-flight entertainment system; this, along with on-board lecturers Peter Hicks, Peter Attard and David Dodd who are all deeply experienced with Antarctica in their own way kept us plenty occupied. After all, if you’re on the plane, presumably you have some interest in learning a thing or two about our great southern neighbour.
Peter Attard in particular was MC throughout much of the flight and kept things highly interesting while we were gliding towards and over the polar ice caps.
While the atmosphere was already electric, it was positively crackling when we saw the first signs of ice. For the next four hours it was snap, snap, snap, interspersed with too many instances of ‘wow’, ‘oh my god’ and ‘amazing’. Even I underestimated just how awed I would be upon seeing Antarctica for the first time. This is truly an otherworldly place, yet not far at all from our doorsteps. The sheer magnitude of it just blew me away.
PICTURE FLOOD INCOMING – click/tap on an image to expand
Here’s the thing about a sightseeing flight that even an expedition that takes you personally there can’t offer: the vantage point. Any scepticism I had about not getting a clear view were pleasingly dashed – the pilot takes the plane down to an altitude as low as 700 metres above ground, which is insane considering that normal cruising altitude is around 10000 metres. Those that get plane sick should bring their travacalm: the captain does several figure 8s to ensure the best views, and sometimes banks the plane so hard that the seatbelt sign would be flashing and flight attendants would be seated if this were any other flight. I actually nearly fell a few times, but this isn’t on them: I found it kinda fun! Pair this with the 747’s rather large, pre-cleaned windows, and it made for a view and experience that’s completely unique unto itself. A comparison to being on the ground? Apples and oranges. The one downside? Don’t expect to see any penguins!
One concern I did have was about weather; however, Qantas supposedly has 19 different flight plans from which to choose depending on these conditions, and it’s rare that Antarctica is blanketed in clouds such that the majority of the flight path is obscured. Thankfully, we had excellent viewing, but it’s always a gamble with these things.
While I pretty much spent the entirety of the day’s daylight hours cooped up in a plane, a great sense of exhaustion took over me in the final minutes of our flyover segment. Truly, I was spent revelling in the incredulity of being on such a flight, as well as the rather fierce rays of the Antarctic sun! I expected I’d enjoy the flight, but to enjoy it as much as I did was a genuine surprise. Suffice it to say, I made good use of the flat bed on the return segment to Sydney.
The experience wasn’t of course, perfect: snacks ran short during service, and there’s too much of a gap between the breakfast and dinner service. On the flip side, the champagne was always ready to go.
This was also not my first time on this flight. You see, originally, we were scheduled to depart on November 24; however, an issue with a satellite uplink module on the aircraft failed to boot up even after we had pushed back from the gate. For the first time in Antarctica Flights’ 25 year history, a flight had to be cancelled – and yours truly happened to be on said flight. It was fortunate that the replacement flight on February 24 worked out well without drama. I can only imagine how inconvenienced those who flew from other states, even countries must have been.
But even with all that said, I should point out that the plane’s precise model is a Boeing 747-400 ER (Extended Range) – one of only six left in operation, with Qantas owning all of them. It is the only aircraft type that can fulfil the mission requirements of this flight, with newer models are not quite up to the task. Qantas has expressed their intention to retire these planes within the next few years, so if you’ve been holding out on visiting the freezer, it may be time to pull the trigger.
There’s literally nothing else quite like it!