Antarctica: first technical flight on the new Italian runway

(To air Force)

First test landing this morning on the new Antarctic airfield designed by the Air Force and built by ENEA and the Air Force itself, in collaboration with the Fire Brigade, thanks to a dedicated funding from the Ministry of University and Research. A C-130J of the 46a at 4.30 am Italian time, the air brigade of the Air Force successfully carried out the first landing on the semi-prepared runway destined to become an international hub in Antarctica at the service of scientific research, not only in Italy.

The flight carried materials and food to deal with the emergency caused by the reduced thickness of sea ice, which this year did not allow large aircraft to land on the pack in front of the Italian Mario Zucchelli coastal base in Terranova Bay.

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, taking advantage of the debris deposits that dominate Boulder Clay, a glacier over 100 meters thick, located 4 km from Zucchelli station. The works that will make the aerostructure fully operational starting from the next Antarctic expedition will be completed in the coming months.

"This airstrip will make it possible to increase the reliability, flexibility and safety of the logistic operations of the PNRA - National Antarctic Research Programme", explains Elena Campana, head of ENEA's Antarctic Technical Unit, which takes care of the logistics planning of Italian shipments. “This is an important resource - adds - also for the other Antarctic programs that happen to operate in the Ross Sea. The Antarctic Programs of New Zealand and South Korea have already expressed their strong interest in collaborating and this infrastructure which will also be able to support the activities of the United States Antarctic Program ".

“The Air Force played a fundamental role in both 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 AM logistics command. This is a unique project in the world of its kind, extremely complex due to the severity of the Antarctic context and the site in which it stands, which required a long preliminary activity of study and monitoring of structural stability, carried out together with ENEA and PNRA researchers ", explains Lieutenant Colonel Antonello Germinario, Air Force engineer officer who was involved in the design of the work and who this year plays the role of geotechnical expert and site manager in the field. “To verify the suitability for landing and take-off of the different categories of aircraft – he adds – the structural resistance indexes of the runway are constantly monitored both by the Geotechnical Laboratory of the 2nd AM engineering department and by ENEA".

Specifically, the airstrip is made up of superimposed layers of material found on site: the foundation is made up of coarse stone material while the upper ones are instead made of material with gradually decreasing granulometry using theAir Convection Embankment (ACE), the principle that favors the convection of air inside the structure, protecting the underlying moraine/glacier system from overheating during the summer.

“Sea ice provides a suitable surface for air operations, but is unreliable over time. First, it can only be used for a limited period of the year, no more than a month in the early austral summer, before 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 38a Italian expedition to Antarctica. “This year the prolonged and intense katabatic winds combined with the severe sea storms that occurred in the area prevented the ice from reaching the minimum thickness that would allow us to set up an airstrip on the pack ice, forcing us to divert air operations to the US base in McMurdo. A gravel track, also from a future point of view, solves this problem. The Air Force flight at Boulder Clay represents the technical test with a view to putting the infrastructure into operation next year”concludes Bianchi Fasani.

“The semi-prepared airfield in Antarctica makes us particularly proud”, underlined Brigadier General Mario Sciandra, head of the infrastructure service of the Air Force logistics command. “In this example of institutional collaboration, unexplored problems have been tackled and successfully resolved, allowing the technical bodies of our Infrastructure Service to acquire extraordinary experience which will contribute to expanding their range of skills in the construction of so-called semi-prepared slopes in support of the Operation of the Air Force".

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