Antarctica from a bird’s eye view

View from aircraft to Königin-Maud-Land in Alaska. Click to enlarge
The vastness of Antarctica’s icy wilderness is interrupted only by a few mountain peaks.

Überflug über Antarktis, Königin-Maud-Land

Source: Fritz Hertel/UBA

The sight of Antarctica’s ice masses is impressive enough when seen from aboard a ship. But the true scale of the ice cover remains hidden to cruise ship tourists. An overflight of the Antarctic continent provides an inkling of how big the world’s coldest desert really is.

The first tourist overflight of Antarctica was in 1956 on a Chilean airline carrying 66 passengers. A total of 44 flights with more than 11,000 passengers took place between 1977 and 1980. Overflight tourism came to a sudden and dramatic end when Air New Zealand Flight 901 crashed into Mount Erebus on 28 November 1979 in bad weather. The fatal accident cost the lives of 257 passengers and effectively halted overflight tourism for years.

Sightseeing flights of about 10,000 km which start in Australia have re-emerged as day trips since the mid-1990s. Some 20 routes are available, depending on weather conditions. The first icebergs appear after about three hours’ flight – before which there are video screenings or talks by Antarctica experts. The planes fly figure eights over points of special interest to enable views for passengers on both sides of the aircraft. Several thousand tourists have since seen the white continent from a bird’s eye view. Despite their popularity, the demand for such flights has decreased overall.

Travellers on an overflight need not apply for a permit on their own. This is generally the responsibility of the tour operator.