Plane lands at South Pole in rare, risky effort to rescue sick worker

By Sarah Kaplan

The last sunset of the summer at the South Pole, on March 20. Photo / National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
The last sunset of the summer at the South Pole, on March 20. Photo / National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

After a harrowing, 10-hour journey through the dark and frigid Antarctic winter, a plane landed at the South Pole to evacuate at least one sick worker at the Amundsen-Scott research station.

This is only the third time in the station's 60-year history that anyone has flown to the pole during the six-month polar winter when the only light comes from the moon and stars.

Kelly Falkner, the director of polar programmes for the National Science Foundation, which runs the South Pole station, said that a seasonal employee for contractor Lockheed Martin requires medical treatment not available at the station and needs to be flown out.

A second worker may also be rescued. Falkner couldn't provide further details about the medical conditions behind the rescues for privacy reasons.

The rescue effort was launched early last week after consultation with outside medical experts and agency officials.

"We try to balance our decisions with all of the risks involved," Falkner said, noting that the safety of the flight crew and the needs of all 48 people overwintering at the station were also taken into account. "It's a very serious decision that we take to move in this direction."

Dozens of people spend the winter at the Amundsen-Scott station each year. They help maintain the station, oversee long-term monitoring of the atmosphere and climate change, conduct research on the early history of the universe via two radio telescopes, and observe the behaviour of subatomic particles at the station's IceCube Neutrino Observatory.


1 In 1999, a doctor at the South Pole discovered a cancerous lump in her right breast. She treated herself - even performing her own biopsy and administering her own chemotherapy - for almost six months until the weather thawed enough for a rescue plane to arrive.
2 A decade later, when a manager for the station suffered a stroke in August, the question of whether an airlift was possible led to a tense standoff. She was ultimately flown out in mid-October.

"We were stuck in a place that's harder to get to than the International Space Station," said Ron Shemenski, a former physician for the station who in 2001 became the first person to be evacuated during the dark winter months. "We know we're on our own."

Between February and October, only one type of aircraft can fly to, land at and take off again from the South Pole: the tiny Twin Otter.

Two of these hardy, winter-proof bush planes, operated by Canadian polar service firm Kenn Borek, landed at the British-run Rothera research station on the Antarctic coast, each of them carrying a pilot, a co-pilot, an engineer and a medic.

One plane and its crew was prepped for a journey to the pole and equipped with skis to allow it to land on snow and ice. The second remained at Rothera to provide search-and-rescue support if the first one failed.

Alberta bush pilot Sean Loutitt was the chief pilot for Kenn Borek during the mission to evacuate Shemenski in 2001. Before that rescue effort, no one had flown to Amundsen-Scott through the polar night. It was assumed that it couldn't be done.

"It's a 10-hour flight, and you only have 12 or 13 hours of fuel on board," he said. "You're monitoring the weather the whole time, but eventually you get to a point of no return. Then you're committed to the pole, no matter what."

Twin Otters are certified to fly at temperatures as low as minus-103 F, according to Falkner. They require little fuel - essential when every ounce of fuel has to be warmed for flight. At the pole's low temperatures, fuel freezes into an unusable jelly. So does the grease in a plane's hinges and gears. If anything goes awry, pilots may need to land on unknown terrain in total darkness.

Luckily, the trip in 2001 was relatively smooth. After hours of flying in darkness, Loutitt and his crew finally glimpsed a glimmer of light below them: Barrels of fuel were burning along the makeshift runway the South Pole station workers had prepared. They'd reached the bottom of Earth.

But as they started up the engines, the crew realised they couldn't take off. The Twin Otter's skis had stuck to the ice beneath them, and the grease on the wing flaps had frozen them in the fully extended position. While the station workers hacked at the ice on the skis, the plane's mechanic jury-rigged the controls to allow it to take off. It was one of the longest, slowest take-offs any of them had ever attempted, but eventually, they were in the air.

Rothera, the British Antarctic Survey station is seen from the air. Photo / AP
Rothera, the British Antarctic Survey station is seen from the air. Photo / AP

The journey back to Rothera was unlike anything Shemenski had experienced.

"During the initial part when you're in the darkness it's hardly a sensation of moving at all because you can't see anything," he recalled. "Everything's black."

But then a thin line of pink appeared - sunlight on the horizon.

"It was really beautiful to watch it grow," co-pilot Mark Cary told Canadian broadcaster CTV for a documentary about the mission. "It was like a gift and a sign to say everything's going to work out and you guys are going the right way."

Cary and Loutitt would repeat the flight two years later, when Barry McCue, an environmental health and safety officer employed by contractor Raytheon Polar Services, developed a serious infection in his gallbladder. This time, Shemenski was the medical director for Raytheon and helped coordinate the rescue.

"You can tell they're getting better at the planning of it," McCue told the Antarctic Sun, a newspaper run by the NSF.

Still, any mission to the darkest and most distant place on Earth is risky. That the NSF has decided that an evacuation is its best option, Shemenski said, means that those at the pole must be seriously ill.

The Twin Otter's pilots and engineer will rest and refuel at the pole for at least 10 hours before returning to Rothera, when the weather allows. From there, the patient or patients will be taken to Punta Arenas in Chile, and then to a hospital that hasn't been disclosed.

The trip back to Rothera is just as dark and perilous as the journey to the pole. But, this time, the Twin Otter will be flying toward daylight.

- Washington Post

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf02 at 22 Oct 2016 19:23:46 Processing Time: 303ms