Qantas jumbo jet takes off for Antarctica

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Captain Greg Fitzgerald is no ordinary Qantas pilot. And this is no ordinary flight.

The veteran 747 captain is one of only four Qantas pilots qualified to captain the airline's most unusual flight route - a 13-hour jaunt to Antarctica and back.

Tour company Antarctica Flights charters a Qantas jumbo jet a few times a year to take tourists on a sightseeing tour of the world's coldest, most remote continent. It's an opportunity to get a bird's-eye view of this frozen wasteland and get a real sense of the awesome size and harshness of the landscape.

"People don't realise how big this continent is," says Captain Fitzgerald on board. "It's 14 million square kilometres. Australia is 7.7 million square kilometres."

Captain Fitzgerald is making his fourth flight to Antarctica and his second as captain. Of the four captains qualified to make the flight, two have to be on board each time.

The flight stands out on the departure board at Sydney Airport, which lists flight QF2904's final destination as Sydney (since the plane departs and lands from the same place). Beneath the flight number though in bright letters are the words "Antarctic Charter".

QF2904 takes off from Sydney's domestic terminal and since we aren't actually entering a foreign country, passengers need only a driver's licence or other approved ID and not a passport.

We depart early in the morning with the aim of reaching the continent by lunchtime. As it turns out the weather is so clear that we begin to spot icebergs and vast floating ice sheets well before we reach the coastline.

The flight plan is set before we take off. Captain Fitzgerald and his team choose from a possible 19 different flight paths depending on the weather. Despite Antarctica being the driest continent on Earth, the winds can be extremely strong and we also want to avoid any low cloud to ensure the best possible visibility.

As it turns out, we get ideal conditions the entire trip. It's so bright, in fact, that I'm glad I've brought along my sunglasses to protect my eyes from the harsh glare reflecting off Antarctica's frozen surface.

The flight route itself is not the only unusual thing about this flight. Once we reach Antarctica, the plane descends from its cruising altitude down to about 20,000 feet (6000 metres, or less than two-thirds of normal cruising altitude) so we can get a closer view of the landscape.

It also makes circles over some of the highlights to ensure passengers on both sides of the cabin get a good chance to see the sights (Antarctica Flights rotates the seating positions of passengers so that most passengers have the opportunity to have a seat close to the window for at least half the flight, apart from those in the cheapest middle seats).

In the business class cabin, passengers wander around freely with easy access to window views even for those of us (like myself) sitting in the middle seats.

"When we're down low, we're using a lot of fuel, but we're also doing a lot of visual navigation," says Captain Fitzgerald. "That's what the passengers see on the day. But the preparation to actually do this charter goes back for years and even for today's flight it started seven months ago."

That preparation includes providing environmental impact studies to Australia's Department of Environment and Energy, getting permission to fly under the Antarctic Treaty and ensure the flight route avoids penguin colonies as well as some of the bases.

Our route takes us along the Transantarctic Mountain range on the coast of the Ross Sea as far as the Ross Ice Shelf, where we circle the famous Mount Erebus - an active volcano that is visibly smoking as we pass.

There are two Antarctica experts on board, who offer a running commentary while we're over the continent on what we're seeing and giving us an insight into the geography and geology of the various regions we pass over, along with the history of exploration here.

The plane has also been rewired to allow the pilots to pipe the cockpit radio into the cabin. This gives us the opportunity to listen in as the pilots contact Rebecca Jeffcoat, a naval officer who recently arrived at Australia's Casey Station where she will be station leader for the next 12 months.

Jeffcoat gives us an insight into life down on the station before we get to see some of the other stations for ourselves as we fly over those belonging to New Zealand, Korea, Italy and America's large McMurdo Station.

The latter station, on the tip of Ross Island, is large enough to accommodate more than 1200 residents. There are several airfields nearby that service the station, and surprisingly Captain Fitzgerald reveals that the ice runways here are strong and long enough to handle a 747.

From here, after about four hours in the Antarctic circle, we turn back towards Sydney. It's a chance to rest after the flurry of activity during the visit and enjoy the dinner provided by the Qantas crew.

By the time we get back to Sydney we will have covered more than 11,000 kilometres and I can't help but think about the likes of Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton and Mawson - the great explorers who faced incredible hardships to reach this remote place.

It took Norwegian Roald Amundsen's expedition more than a year to reach the South Pole from when they first set out. Now, a little over 100 years later, we can pop down for the day and enjoy a glass of champagne while we're at it.

TRIP NOTES

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FLY

Antarctica Flights has two more trips scheduled this summer, departing from Melbourne and Brisbane, with further flights scheduled from Hobart and Perth in the 2018/19 summer. Prices start from $1199 for an economy class centre seat, with standard economy seats including window rotation starting from $1999. See antarcticaflights.com.au

STAY

Flights depart early in the morning so for passengers connecting from other cities an overnight stay at an airport hotel is recommended. The Pullman Sydney Airport is the newest airport hotel in the city and offers stylish, comfortable rooms from about $160 a night. See pullmansydneyairport.com.au

Craig Platt travelled as a guest of Antarctica Flights and Accor Hotels.