What it’s like on a Qantas 787 sightseeing flight to Antarctica

If you’ve dreamed of visiting the frozen continent, this ‘flightseeing’ adventure will help tick it off your bucket list.

By Sid Raja , March 10 2022
What it’s like on a Qantas 787 sightseeing flight to Antarctica

For some, Antarctica is the final frontier, and therein lies the beauty and appeal. It’s a highly prized bucket list item, so much so that merely having the chance to see it can be life-defining.

In addition to polar cruises and expeditions which run during the ‘summer’ months from September to March, the Great White Continent is now more accessible than ever onboard a full-day sightseeing flight with Chimu Adventures.

Join Executive Traveller as we journey from Sydney to the South Pole and back on a 13-hour trip that won’t soon be forgotten.

After check-in, I head to the familiar Gate 11 at Sydney Domestic Airport, where passengers are eagerly gathering; some are already taking photos, although the only ice in proximity is tinkling around in their morning glass of juice.

As a full day experience, it’s an early start. Chimu runs sightseeing flights to to experience the majesty of Antarctica and the wonder of the Southern Lights from Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Melbourne each year, setting off around 8am on chartered Qantas 787-9 Dreamliner.

There’s no luggage allowed, or needed for that matter; the only bags in sight contain cameras and spare batteries. While technically still considered a domestic flight, sightseers have brought their passports to obtain a commemorative stamp as an indelible memento.

Onboard, there’s little to suggest you’re not on a normal Qantas flight, with friendly cabin crew – clearly as excited as the guests themselves – guiding passengers to their seats and handing out amenity kits.

The Qantas business class amenity kit.
The Qantas business class amenity kit.

A full international cabin service is being provided to the same standard as you’d find on a flight to London, Los Angeles or anywhere on the Qantas network, albeit with a special menu.

Also travelling with us are Antarctic experts Howard Whelan and Narelle Campbell, hired by Chimu Adventures to share some of the lesser-known facts about this other ‘great southern land’.

The duo have spent extended periods of time on Antarctica conducting research, but despite their experience, the excitement on their faces exudes a genuine passion and love for the region. 

“Although I’ve visited the continent I’ve actually never flown over it, so we’ll be seeing far more of Antarctica today than I have in my years doing this,” Whelan quips.

The Qantas Boeing 787-9 business class is a comfortable way to see Antarctica.
The Qantas Boeing 787-9 business class is a comfortable way to see Antarctica.

I settle into seat 1K in business class, which has plenty of storage space for my camera and other gadgets. It’s a luxurious way to spend the next 13 hours.

The Qantas pilots have been plotting our course for several weeks, carefully monitoring the weather in Antarctica so they can choose from one of 20 different flight paths.

Qantas pilots determine the best flight path, and also get some of the best views of all.
Qantas pilots determine the best flight path, and also get some of the best views of all.

Soon, we receive word that the weather and visibility are perfect for our flight and we should be in for some great views.

There are 20 possible flight paths for sightseeing flights to Antarctica.
There are 20 possible flight paths for sightseeing flights to Antarctica.

At a 9,500km round-trip, Antarctica is quite a distance from Australia, so the first few hours at 40,000 feet are uneventful, providing ample time to relax over breakfast and even dial into the entertainment system (although there’s no WiFi) before we can expect that precious first glimpse of the ghostly-white land below.

Breakfast is served soon after take-off from Sydney.
Breakfast is served soon after take-off from Sydney.

The sense of excitement in the cabin is palpable and there’s an energy reverberating through every row. Before long and without warning, a passenger behind me exclaims: ‘Land!’

The air is crisp and we're witnessing one frozen highlight after another.. Matt Abbott
The air is crisp and we're witnessing one frozen highlight after another.
Matt Abbott

The aircraft gradually descends to about half our cruising altitude – and the fun really begins.

There's a polite order, with guests making room for others to see.. Matt Abbott
There's a polite order, with guests making room for others to see.
Matt Abbott

Rising from the horizon, like the climax of an action movie as the dust settles and the fog clears, ‘The Ice’ as Antarctic workers call it is finally revealed.

Cue collective gasps, rapturous applause and even some impassioned cheers. We’re in – well, we're over – Antarctica!

It's impossible to truly grasp the sheer scale of the frozen continent.. Matt Abbott
It's impossible to truly grasp the sheer scale of the frozen continent.
Matt Abbott

It’s definitely a moment worth celebrating: only a tiny percentage of people have ever seen Antarctica with their own eyes. And now, we can count ourselves among them.

You’re immediately struck by how deep and thick the ice is. Mountainous shadows dance over the landscape and from the first sight of a continent so vast in scope, it’s impossible to judge just how far into the distance it stretches.

It's a vast, desolate wilderness down there.. Matt Abbott
It's a vast, desolate wilderness down there.
Matt Abbott

One of the many fascinating facts shared by our expert guides: despite holding 90% of the world’s ice volume and 70% of its fresh water, Antarctica is the driest continent on Earth, so much so that it’s technically classified as a desert.

Once land becomes visible, it is transfixing and so serenely beautiful that it’s difficult to break your initial gaze.

Prior to the flight, Chimu recommended we bring sunglasses – and it’s now obvious why, when you have the relatively unfiltered sun reflecting off the pristine white ice.

At times, the sun's reflection off the ice can be harsh.. Matt Abbott
At times, the sun's reflection off the ice can be harsh.
Matt Abbott

From the time we reach cruising altitude, passengers have carte blanche to wander about the cabin.

There’s a great sense of camaraderie and as scenic vistas are revealed on both sides of the aircraft, those with an immediate view from the window seats have their fill, then considerately make way for others to enjoy it.

The flight hangs low to maximise the views but rarely dips below 20,000ft.. Matt Abbott
The flight hangs low to maximise the views but rarely dips below 20,000ft.
Matt Abbott

Despite the mass of frozen white land beneath us, it still feels like there’s something new to look at every few minutes as mountains, canyons, valleys and stray icebergs sweep by.

Unlike an expedition cruise, flying over the continent allows us to see much more of the land area than seafarers would.

The beauty of Antarctica cannot be overstated.. Matt Abbott
The beauty of Antarctica cannot be overstated.
Matt Abbott

Cruises visit the Antarctic Peninsula but never get anywhere near the amazing highlights visible from above, such as the Ross ice shelf, Cape Adare, Mt Erebus (the tallest mountain in the continent), the unnerving Mt Terror and even the McMurdo Station US research base.

For safety reasons, the flight rarely dips much below 20,000ft – but with no air pollution corrupting the atmosphere, it’s clear sailing (so to speak) and the visibility is crystal clear. Antarctica is on show and highly photogenic, meaning you don’t need to have particularly good camera skills to capture amazing photos which will impress your friends.

We spend about four hours cruising above Earth’s fifth-largest continent, which in the warmer months can shrink to nearly half the size of its winter self, until the Dreamliner turns north and sets a course for home as the crew serve dinner.

The return journey back to Australia is met with a sumptuous entree.
The return journey back to Australia is met with a sumptuous entree.

Again, this is on par with any international Qantas flight, and it serves to cap off an extraordinary day of flying that was nothing like my regular trips to Japan, Europe or the USA.

Dinner service consisted of an entree and main course.
Dinner service consisted of an entree and main course.

On the journey back, Chimu conducts a special auction where passengers are given the opportunity to bid on some incredible souvenirs.

The onboard auction allows sightseers to bid on some special souvenirs.. Matt Abbott
The onboard auction allows sightseers to bid on some special souvenirs.
Matt Abbott

Among the items on offer include a small bottle of Overeem sherry cask whisky made with pure Antarctic 'ice melt' water, made to commemorate the expedition of Australian explorer, Geoff Wilson, who in 2019 conquered the Antarctic Plateau unassisted, covering 5,306 kilometres with only a wind kite and a sled full of food.

Also up for the bidding: an authentic autograph from adventurer Sir Edmund Hillary (the first man to climb Mt Everest).

As we touch down back at Sydney Airport, the smiles on the faces around me have still yet to fade. There’s a feeling we’ve been somewhere truly magical – and it’s an experience we’ll no doubt reminisce about for years to come.

The author flew as a guest of Chimu Adventures

31 Oct 2018

Total posts 6

How does seat allocation work and do you rotate? Do you pay a premium for window seats? 

sid
sid

07 Jan 2011

Total posts 47

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

06 Sep 2020

Total posts 5

Sid, thanks for the great review. Please rate the value of the trip as a way to spend QFF points, e.g. Economy wing: 140,000pts, Economy no wing: 200,000 pts

23 Jul 2017

Total posts 90

Too late, mate. I didn't go on a Queen with all its lovely space. Very silly me. There was always "tomorrow/next month/next year", then there was none of those as the Queen was gone forever. Much and all as I'd love to see Antarctica, there's no way I'd go on a squeezy 787.

A dear old friend was given a Queen trip several years ago. Whenever we meet or chat on the phone, he's still talking about it, not to make me jealous, but because it was an absolute thrill. I'm so happy as it was a dream trip for him.


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