The longest commercial flight in Qantas' history landed in Darwin on Wednesday night after a route that took it from Buenos Aires over the coast of Antarctica on a near-18 hour long haul.
The repatriation flight was the return leg of a charter flight that carried Argentina's rugby team home from Brisbane to Buenos Aires on Sunday after the 2021 Rugby Championship. The Department of Foreign Affairs were notified about the flight and worked with Qantas to use the returning plane to bring home Australians.
Flight QF14 took off from Buenos Aires at 12.44pm local time, 19 minutes behind schedule, but landed in Darwin five minutes early after a journey that took 17 hours, 25 minutes.
The Qantas Boeing 787 Dreamliner covered 15,020 kilometres, exceeding the distance of Qantas' previous longest non-stop commercial flight, from Perth to London, which is 14,498 kilometres.
Speaking before the flight, Captain Alex Passerini, Qantas's chief technical pilot, said a lot of work had gone into planning the trip.
"There's no changes to the plane needed … it was designed around these sort of missions and it does it very well," he said.
"But it does require a bit of fine tuning when you're operating at these ranges. We have quite a bit of flexibility over the South Pacific as there's not a lot of other traffic to deal with, but small changes in wind can have quite a significant impact on the route that we take. That is calculated by our flight system."
For such a long flight, four pilots would be on board, including two captains for this flight.
"All four pilots are on deck for take-off and landing, but then we get into a rest program and start a rotation. We cut up the time to give everyone an equitable rest and have two pilots on, two pilots off at any given time. Typically you'll get two rest periods over the course of the flight."
Captain Passerini, who has flown with Qantas for 30 years, including on the Perth-London non-stop route, said flying over Antarctica's coast was the quickest way to get from South America to Australia.
"We'll end up flying over the continent at around 73 or 74 south latitude, depending on the winds," he said. "Hopefully the cloud cover will be kind to us and we can give our passengers a view."
The flight approached Australia from the south, crossing the Great Australian Bight to then fly over the Red Centre to Darwin.
Captain Passerini and his co-pilot gave updates via Qantas' Twitter feed during the flight, pointing out the temperature hit minus 75° Celcius while flying over the Walker Mountains of Thurston Island, one of Antarctica's largest islands.
An amazing view of Antarctica from the cockpit. pic.twitter.com/7iJranqH3v— Qantas (@Qantas) October 7, 2021
While Qantas has flown longer distances previously, most recently with the Project Sunrise non-stop flights from London and New York to Sydney, those were test flights that were not carrying paying passengers. Although the Buenos Aires flight is a one-off, it is the longest flight in Qantas' 100-year history to carry paying passengers.
The world's longest regular commercial flight is Singapore to New York, operated by Singapore Airlines. The 18-hour route was suspended in March last year but resumed in December.
While the Qantas repatriation flight brought back 107 Australian citizens and permanent residents from South America, some Australians who had seats on the flight were forced to cancel their trips due to Argentina's closed borders.
Connecting flights from other South American countries were cancelled by the Argentine government, leaving some Australians scrambling to find alternatives in time to make the departure.
An image from FlightRadar24 shows how flying via Antarctic airspace is the most direct route from Argentina to Australia. Photo: flightradar24
Joe May, who has lived in Panama for 18 years but has been seeking to return to Australia for health reasons, paid $2396 for a seat on the repatriation flight. He used a friend's credit card after being unable to work in his job as an English teacher due to the pandemic.
Last week disaster struck after Panama carrier Copa Airlines informed him his connecting flight to Buenos Aires had been cancelled. After nearly giving up hope and cancelling his seat on the Qantas flight, he managed to get on to another flight with Copa after being put on standby.
Speaking from a hotel room in Buenos Aires prior to the flight, Mr May said he had mixed emotions. He has a three-year-old daughter with his Ecuadorian wife and he plans to start the process of applying to residency for his family after he arrives in Australia, which he expects to take about two years.
"I have been watching the news about the reopening of the borders and home quarantine but I have been fed so much bulls--- over the past year I don't believe anyone," he said.
Qantas brought forward the return of international flights to mid-November in the wake of the federal government's announcement that borders would reopen once vaccination rates of 80 per cent were reached.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the flight took 17 hours, 26 minutes. This was based on flight radar data, but Qantas' internal flight log has since confirmed it was actually 17 hours, 25 minutes.