Daring South Pole Rescue Extracts Two From Treacherous Conditions

A small turboprop airplane returned to the edge of Antarctica today following a successful South Pole rescue. The South Pole rescue effort was mounted in order to extract a sick contractor, but another individual was also evacuated due to an undisclosed medical issue. Both patients are set to receive medical treatment in South America after a brief layover at a research station located on the edge of the Antarctic circle.

Last week, the National Science Foundation announced that it would soon mount a dangerous South Pole rescue to extract a sick contractor from the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

The rescue effort began in Canada, with two turboprop Twin Otter aircraft operated by a Canadian firm that provides logistical support for the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic program. According to The Guardian, the small planes had to make the long journey in four legs, stopping in Denver, Ecuador, and Chile before finally touching down at Britain’s Rothera Station.

From there, one of the propeller-driven aircraft still had to make a perilous 1,500-mile journey to the South Pole, rescue the sick contractor and then return to Rothera.

The other Twin Otter remained at Rothera in case search and rescue operations became necessary, but the rescue mission was a success.

“It all went according to plan,” a representative from the National Science Foundation told The Associated Press.

NPR reports that while the South Pole base is staffed all year, nothing comes in or out during the Antarctic winter. Temperatures typically run lower than -70 degrees Fahrenheit, and very few aircraft are capable of even operating in such conditions. Only three midwinter rescue attempts have ever been made in the history of the South Pole research station, and the last one was more than a decade ago in 2001.

“It’s mind-boggling how cold it gets down there,” Jerry Macala, who was in charge of that last rescue mission, told NPR. “We had to use acetylene torches to light these [engines].”

Although the Twin Otters used in the successful evacuation are designed to operate in temperatures as low as -103 degrees Fahrenheit, the cold itself isn’t the only peril encountered in midwinter South Pole rescues. Large planes, like the C-130s normally used to supply the station, simply cannot take off or land. According to Macala, even the plane used in the 2001 rescue had trouble taking back off when its skis froze to the ice.

“Everybody pitched in, and we rocked the wings and hit the skis with big pieces of wood,” Macala told NPR. “Eventually, it broke loose.”

The other successful winter South Pole rescue mission occurred in Spring of 2009, so the conditions were not as bad. The research station is on lockdown between February and October, so that rescue took place not long after the last scheduled supply run of the year.

The Guardian reports that distance also plays a part in how dangerous this type of rescue mission is.

“Antarctica is a landmass the size of the US and Mexico combined, so there is a distance issue,” West told The Guardian. “And it’s cold. It is literally midwinter today. It’s very cold.”

The round trip from Rothera at the edge of the Arctic Circle to the South Pole is 3,000 miles, and the Twin Otter rescue plane was in the air facing dangerous winter conditions for a total of 20 hours.

“The air and Antarctica are unforgiving environments and punishes any slackness very hard,” Tim Stockings, operations director of the British Antarctic Survey, told The Associated Press. “If you are complacent it will bite you. Things can change very quickly down there with ice from clouds, high winds and snow.”

Despite dangerous conditions, the South Pole rescue attempt was carried out successfully, and the sick workers arrived at Britain’s Rothera Station at approximately 1:15 p.m. EDT today. When conditions permit, the workers will be flown to Chile for treatment, although the National Science Foundation has not disclosed the nature of their illnesses.

[Photo by Robert Schwarz/National Science Foundation via AP Images]