A C-130J lands on the airfield designed and built by ENEA and Aeronautica Militare, the first on the Antarctic continent on a moraine
First test landing this morning on the new Antarctic airfield designed by the Italian Air Force and built by ENEA and the Italian Air Force itself, in collaboration with the Fire Brigade, thanks to dedicated funding from the Ministry of University and Research. A C-130J of the 46th Air Brigade of the Italian Air Force successfully carried out, at 4.30 Italian hours, the first landing on the semi-prepared runway destined to become an international hub in Antarctica at the service of scientific research, not only Italian.
The flight transported materials and food to cope with the emergency caused by the reduced thickness of sea ice, which this year did not allow the landing of large aircraft on the pack in front of the Italian coastal base Mario Zucchelli in the Bay of Newfoundland.
60 meters wide and completed for the first 1,700 meters out of the 2,200 envisaged by the project, the track was built for the first time on a moraine, exploiting the debris deposits overlooking Boulder Clay, a glacier over 100 meters thick, which is located 4 km from Zucchelli station. In the coming months, the works that will make the airstructure fully operational starting from the next Antarctic expedition will be completed.
“This airfield will increase the reliability, flexibility and safety of the logistics operations of PNRA – National Research Program in Antarctica”, explains Elena Campana, head of the Antarctic Technical Unit of ENEA, which takes care of the logistics planning of Italian shipments. “This is also an important resource for the other Antarctic programs operating in the Ross Sea. The Antarctic Programs of New Zealand and South Korea have already expressed their strong interest in collaborating and this infrastructure will also support the activities of the United States Antarctic Program”.
“The Italian Air Force played a fundamental role both in the design and construction of the Boulder Clay runway, also thanks to the on-site deployment of numerous earthmoving machines supplied to the Infrastructure Service of the A.M. Logistic Command. This is a unique project of its kind, extremely complex for the severity of the Antarctic context and for the site in which it stands, which required a long preliminary study and monitoring of structural stability, carried out together with ENEA and PNRA researchers”, explains Lieutenant Colonel Antonello Germinario, Italian Air Force engineer officer who was responsible for the design of the work and who this year plays the role of expert in the field geotechnical and site manager. “To verify the suitability for landing and take-off of the different categories of aircraft – he adds – the structural resistance indices of the runway are constantly monitored both by the Geotechnical Laboratory of the 2nd A.M. Engineering Department and by ENEA”.
Specifically, the airfield is composed of overlapping layers of material found on site: the foundation is made of coarse stone material while the upper ones are instead made with gradually decreasing grain size material using the Air Convection Embankment (ACE), the principle that favors the convection of air inside the structure preserving the underlying moraine / glacier system from overheating during the summer.
“Sea ice is a suitable surface for air operations, but over time it is unreliable. First of all, it can only be used for a limited period of the year, no more than a month at the beginning of the austral summer, before the seasonal heating makes it unsuitable for this type of activity”, explains Gianluca Bianchi Fasani of ENEA, technical manager of the work and expedition leader at the Mario Zucchelli station of the 38th Italian Antarctic Expedition. “This year, prolonged and intense catabatic winds combined with strong sea storms in the area prevented the ice from reaching the minimum thickness that would allow us to set up an airstrip on the pack, forcing us to divert air operations to the US base at McMurdo. A gravel track, also in the future, solves this problem.
The Air Force flight to Boulder Clay represents the technical test in view of the commissioning of the infrastructure next year”, concludes Bianchi Fasani. “The semi-prepared airfield in Antarctica makes us particularly proud,” said Brigadier General Mario Sciandra, Head of the Infrastructure Service of the Air Force Logistic Command. “In this example of institutional collaboration, unexplored problems have been successfully addressed and resolved, allowing the technical bodies of our Infrastructure Service to acquire extraordinary experience that will contribute to expanding their spectrum of skills in the construction of so-called semi-prepared runways to support the operation of the Air Force”.
The Italian missions in Antarctica are funded by the Ministry of University and Research under the PNRA, with ENEA managing the logistical organization and the CNR in the role of head of scientific planning. The 38th Italian expedition to Antarctica started in October and involves a total of 240 technicians and researchers – including 23 operators and specialists from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Carabinieri made available by the Defense – engaged in 50 projects focused mainly on atmospheric sciences, geology, paleoclimate, biology, oceanography and astronomy. The Italian Air Force, in particular, also contributes with a C-130J aircraft of the 46th Air Brigade of Pisa, with crews trained to operate in extreme climatic and environmental conditions, for the connections between New Zealand and the Antarctic continent.
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