China to begin building first permanent airfield in Antarctica

  • Country has been using Russian facility as its home base in the frozen continent
  • Airstrip is expected to be completed in a few years
PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 October, 2018, 9:34pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 October, 2018, 11:46pm

China will soon begin building its first permanent airfield in Antarctica, according to state media, as Beijing tries to expand its influence in the polar region.

The 1,500-metre airstrip will be located on an ice cap in the continent’s east, 28km from the country’s Zhongshan Station in the Larsemann Hills by Prydz Bay, the official Science and Technology Daily reported on Sunday.

“It will provide a foundation for operating large aircraft, creating multiplane services, and building an Antarctic air traffic network in the future,” the report said.

At the moment, China has only one fixed-wing plane that can fly to the polar regions. But its researchers working in Antarctica want to have independent logistics to support their work, according to the report.

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The newspaper also quoted an insider as saying that building a permanent airstrip would connect scientific research to the country’s Antarctic strategy.

“It would also mean China could have a say in the international management of Antarctic air space,” the person said.

A crew of researchers on board the Xuelong icebreaker will be dispatched to the Zhongshan Station later this week to begin work on the project.

It is expected to take a few years to complete the facility, including a terminal, according to the report, because loose snow at the location dozens of metres deep will have to be compacted to form the airstrip.

The researchers spent years surveying glacier movement and collecting weather data before deciding on the location. When it is up and running, it will give China valuable experience in operating a polar region airfield, including runway maintenance, ground services, weather forecast and navigation.

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But initially, there will be only one aircraft using the facility – the Xue Ying 601, or Snow Hawk, which at the moment uses the Russian airfield as its home base in Antarctica.

That aircraft was based on the Basler BT-67, a modified version of the second world war-era C-47 US military transport plane. China bought the plane in 2011 and refitted it with scientific research equipment tailor-made for Antarctic missions. It entered service in 2013.

It can carry up to 18 passengers and fly a distance of 3,440km. But due to its limited range, it has to first stop at Britain’s Rothera Research Station, then stop a couple more times as it crosses the frozen continent before it reaches Russia’s Progress Station – the nearest one to Zhongshan.

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China has previously built two temporary airfields in Antarctica, in addition to its two permanent stations Great wall and Zhongshan and two seasonal stations, Kunlun and Taishan. A fifth Chinese station is also under construction.

Fifteen countries have built more than 50 permanent airfields or skiways in Antarctica – the United States, Russia, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, France, Italy, Germany, Chile, Argentina, Norway, South Africa, Belgium, Japan and India.