Risky medical evacuation takes place at South Pole

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A Twin Otter aircraft is en route to a British Antarctic Survey station.

SOUTH POLE — An airplane sent to the South Pole to rescue a seriously ill staff member at the American research station is en route to the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera Research Station, National Science Foundation spokesman Peter West said Wednesday.

To depart, the Twin Otter aircraft operators needed to be sure the weather was clear at the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station as well as 1,500 miles away at the British station, West said earlier.

The dangers of flying to Amundsen-Scott during its winter season are illustrated by the two salient features of the mission.

One, while the crew was at the base, it needed to determine whether another person, who is also ill, was sick enough to risk being put on the Twin Otter airplane and increasing the weight of the load, West said.

“They are balancing the health and safety of the flight crew and the health and safety of the patient,” West said.

Two, a second Twin Otter aircraft is at the British base 1,500 miles away on the Antarctic Peninsula. Its mission: To rescue the rescuers if necessary.

The National Science Foundation, which manages Amundsen-Scott, would not have risked a winter flight without the first staff member’s life being in jeopardy, West said.

“After comprehensive consultation with outside medical professionals, agency officials previously decided that a medical situation at Amundsen-Scott warrants returning one member of the station’s winter crew to a hospital that can provide a level of medical care that is unavailable at the station,” a foundation statement said.

Flights are discouraged between February and October because of the extremely cold and dark conditions — the only lighting for the landing being provided by the moon and the aurora australis.

The Otters, driven by two propellers, are designed to fly in extreme cold and land on skis on the compacted snow.

Pilot Kenn Borek, who has flown in similar conditions during evacuations in 2001 and 2003, landed at about 5:30 p.m. EDT Tuesday at Amundsen-Scott.

Temperatures were approaching minus-74 degrees, but the wind chill factor made it more like minus-106 degrees, according to the webcam page for the South Pole station of the U.S. Antarctica Program website.

The foundation is not identifying the patient or any medical information because of patient privacy except to say the patient is seasonally employed through the Lockheed Martin Antarctic Support Contract.

On June 14, the Otters flew from Canada to South America and then to the Antarctic Peninsula, where they both landed at Rothera, the British Antarctic Survey said Monday.

Conditions were considered flyable Tuesday, and Borek made the 1,500-mile journey to the South Pole Station. The second Otter remained at Rothera to provide search and rescue capabilities if necessary.

Borek will fly back to Rothera as soon as weather permits and then fly the patient on to Chile and then to wherever treatment is to be provided, West said.

There are 48 people — 39 men and nine women — at Amundsen-Scott, one of three year-round stations operated by the foundation in Antarctica.

Researchers there are studying the atmosphere and dark matter using two radio telescopes as well as an observatory that monitors subatomic particles produced by black holes and other cosmic incidents.

Other medical evacuations have taken place in recent years at Amundsen-Scott and 850 nautical miles away at McMurdo Station. Both flew to New Zealand for medical care.

Americans have occupied the South Pole for research purposes since 1956. Amundsen-Scott was built in 1957 but has been updated and redeveloped over the years.