New Zealand may now have to largely rely on the United States for transport to Antarctica.
Tough new safety requirements imposed on our air force planes flying to the ice mean they will be restricted in how much they can carry.
At the same time the RNZAF appears to have been gazumped in its plans to purchase two C17 Globemaster transport aircraft to use on its Antarctic flights because Qatar has purchased four of the last five available.
Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee says one of the main reasons for purchasing the C17s was to guarantee we had an aircraft capable of servicing Antarctica.
That has been made more urgent by an incident involving an RNZAF Boeing 757 with Foreign Minister Murray McCully and 130 official passengers aboard in October 2013.
The plane passed what is called the “point of no return” after which it has insufficient fuel to return to New Zealand but must fly on to Antarctica.
But 20 minutes after it passed that point the weather at Pegasus Field deteriorated and the air strip was in whiteout conditions.
“With insufficient fuel on board to return to Christchurch, the crew was committed to continuing to Pegasus Field,” the TAIC report said.
“There was no other safe alternative aerodrome in Antarctica where the aeroplane could land. The crew made two attempts to land at Pegasus Field.”
“After holding for nearly two hours with no improvement in the conditions, the crew decided to make a second approach.”
That approach was aborted because they could not see the runway.
“With dwindling fuel reserves and conditions deteriorating the crew elected to make a third attempt at landing.
“When the aeroplane reached about 110 feet above the runway, the crew saw the runway approach lights and markings and was able to make a successful landing in near-whiteout conditions.”
It was not therefore surprising that in January this year when the Transport Accident Investigation Commission report was released it called for a review of flight operations by the Air Force to Antarctica.
Mr Brownlee says that as a consequence of that review RNZAF 757’s may now only fly to Antarctica empty to pick up passengers to come back to New Zealand.
“That’s not terribly satisfactory,” he told POLITIK.
“So we’re now completely reliant on the United States or our own C130’s and they have only a two hour window so they’re not very good either.
“Everybody is taking a much more cautious approach now.”
At the same time the limitations of both the 757s and the C130s were exposed in a completely different environment when a cyclone struck Vanuatu in March this year. New Zealand could not assign any of its eight new NH90 helicopters there because they cannot fit inside either the 757s or the C130s.
“Really as a good regional citizen we should have done a little bit more,” he said.
And so when New Zealand heard that Boeing was going to close its C17 production line and produce only ten more planes it made what Mr Brownlee calls “some inquiries.
It was widely reported in specialist defence media that New Zealand was in fact going to buy two of the planes.
They are reported to cost about $US225 million each.
Indeed New Zealand was so interested in the planes that when the RAAF flew the red stones from India for the Australian Memorial at the National War Memorial in a C17, trial landings and take-offs too place at Blenheim Airport to see whether the plane could get in and out of a smaller New Zealand strip.
The Australians were offering to service the New Zealand C17s if we bought them at their C17 facility at Amberley Air Base near Brisbane.
But it was reported yesterday in “DefenseNews”, an authoritative US defence magazine, that the Gulf state of Qatar was going to purchase four of the last ten leaving only one available for sale.
It said that New Zealand “has been suggested as an option, but the fact that only one C-17 remains makes such a move unlikely.”
Mr. Brownlee says that despite that our inquiries are continuing.
“Whether we get them or not it is not going to make any difference to the situation we are in at the moment and the challenges we’ve got at the moment don’t change.”
Airbus offer the only serious alternative to a C-130.
Their A400M is a four-engined turboprop aircraft with a payload capacity more than twice that of a C-130 Hercules, and 44 per cent more range.
But Mr. Brownlee says it is an unproven aircraft.
There remains the question of whether New Zealand will scrap or replace the existing C 130s and the future of the 757s which Mr. Brownlee says will be coming to the end of their operational life in 2020.
He says if New Zealand bought C17s it would still want to maintain some transport capacity that was slightly smaller which could mean we bought a smaller number of new Hercules.
But it is clear that the desire by New Zealand to maintain a sovereign presence in Antarctica is now going to apply some urgency to the Air Force’s decisions on how to replace its ageing aircraft.