Antarctic A340 flies above ice shelf for 1st time as Airbus tests escape system

Pilot strapped into a harness and flown over glacier to test system that may help modernise flight safety

One of the largest commercial aircraft took to the skies over Antarctica for the first time this week as Airbus tested an emergency escape system that could help modernise flight safety.

The Airbus A340 took off from Australia’s Cocos Island on Wednesday and flew over the Fridtjof Nansen ice shelf before landing safely on the Ross Ice Shelf.

The purpose of the flight was to test the system, first used aboard the aeroplane during testing in 2010, which deploys a series of ropes to help pull a pilot from the plane during an emergency.

Airbus has said it would like to see the system on all its largest planes, among them the 380-seat A380. The European aircraft-maker said the pilot on the flight was strapped into a harness and could be pulled a few metres away from the plane in case of a forced landing.

If any of the ropes break, the pilot could be flown to a ground control station, where he could be airlifted to safety.

Analysts have long warned that modern airline routes over oceans carry far greater risk than traditional flights over land.

Last year, a Singapore Airlines A380 suffered engine failure while flying over the Indian Ocean, forcing a round-the-world diversion of about nine hours.

Aviation consultant Richard Aboulafia said the Airbus system was a promising technology but “won’t be mission-critical” because pilots are accustomed to such situations.

“All the best pilots practice landing in very deep water … you’d rather be out there landing on nothing than be forced to use it as a means of escape,” he said.

The Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines that power the A380 were generally considered safe enough to fly on, however, even if they were malfunctioning, because the plane has a large safety net to bring it safely down.

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