A highlight of any journey from Sydney to Johannesburg on Qantas is having the chance to see parts of the Antarctic ice sheet from 35,000 feet. The Antarctic ice sheet is actually the largest block of ice on earth covering more than 14 million square kilometres and is about 2 kilometres thick. If it melted, sea level would rise by about 60 metres.
I have undertaken this journey on the QF63 annually for many years and it is always uncertain as to whether you will see the ice through the clouds, but when you do- the view is absolutely overwhelming. The photo enthusiasts like myself are falling over themselves to gain a birds eye view as you never know what formations you will see and sometimes nature teases you with just a glimpse, whilst on other days you can see clearly for miles. Hard to believe you could fly over nothing but clouds for 11 000 kilometres.
I was delighted to have the opportunity to chat with Qantas First Officer Adam Susz about this route as his view from the flight deck is of course all encompassing – so, over to you Adam.
“On the SYD-JNB flight, which is typically 13 hours, we head south over Melbourne and sometimes Launceston or Hobart. It’s a strange feeling heading south over the ocean leaving the Australian continent well behind, but that’s how the great circle track works – a curved line concave to the equator which joins any two points by the shortest distance”.
“On SYD-JNB flights we usually fly even further south (e.g. 60-65 degrees) than the great circle track to avoid the jetstreams, or headwinds, that are typical in the 40-50 degree latitudes (also known as the roaring 40s). We use these winds to our advantage coming home on the QF64 and usually that involves flying around 45-50 degrees south all the way. This reduces the return flight time to 11.5 hours”.
Cheryl, in answer to your specific questions:
“No we don’t ever see polar bears from the air, firstly because they would be too small from 35,000 feet and secondly they’re not found in Antarctica. There are penguins which are even smaller again and so impossible to see with the naked eye. Qantas operates Antarctic charter flights around New Year and the flights are not allowed directly over penguin colonies”.
“Pilots love flying Qantas B747s anywhere in the world and the more popular routes over the years have been Europe and North America. Europe is a really interesting journey because we fly mostly over land . The views are often stunning, for example the Himalaya, the Hindu Kush, Caspian Sea, major European cities (especially beautiful at night). Speaking to air traffic controllers in such a variety of accents and cultures is quite interesting. ”
“Johannesburg is a interesting route & certainly not the least popular. It involves a large time change (8 hours) which causes quite a bit of jet lag, especially coming home as eastbound travel is always harder for the body to adjust to. It’s a very isolated route, again mostly over water, and we can feel very alone in the southern Indian ocean. For about eight hours our closest landing point is probably Antarctica, and this would not really be an option in any situation. Thankfully nothing ever goes wrong and the B747 with four engines is as reliable as it gets, but we always have to keep in mind where our nearest airport is just in case”.
“The image of the Circle route illustrates the isolation of the route, you can see that it passes a small island about halfway along the journey. This is the Kerguelen Islands, a French territory. There are no real facilities there and certainly no airport, but I believe they station about 50-100 researchers there. Many years ago it was home to fishermen engaged in whaling and sealing. Occasionally we will pass close to Heard Island which is south of Kerguelen, and it’s quite stunning. I find it fascinating that this massive volcanic, snow-covered peak sticks out in the middle of nowhere”.
“One of the less enjoyable aspects of the QF63 is having to look into the sun for 13 hours straight. I don’t particularly enjoy that aspect, in fact that’s why I prefer flying at night. Flying west means we are chasing the sun so it never sets. Makes for a long day!”
“Once we arrive in Johannesburg, the airport is at high altitude (over 5,500 feet) and higher than any other airport in the Qantas network. This causes some unique operational differences but nothing we can’t handle with ease. Thunderstorms are common in the warmer months so we ensure that the aircraft avoids bad weather, keeping it safe and comfortable for the passengers and crew. Occasionally this means delaying a takeoff or landing until the weather passes.”
“As good as the journey is, the destination is where the real experience is. I haven’t been anywhere like South Africa. The land is so beautiful, the animals are amazing and the people are warm and friendly. I’ve done a couple of safaris, all have been memorable and I look forward to doing it again”.
Readers I hope you have enjoyed reading this post about my favourite flight in the Qantas network. Big thank you to Adam for sharing his thoughts and knowledge with us and I do apologise for asking if they see polar bears. Another blog I read had intimated that it is possible so thanks Adam for clearing that one up!