Here’s How A Risky Winter Rescue Went Down at the South Pole

Credit: Fiona McIntosh / Getty Images

One of the 48 people holed up for the winter at the South Pole’s Amundsen-Scott research station has fallen ill, and a Canadian aircrew has been dispatched to retrieve the patient from the perpetually dark deep freeze of Antarctica’s winter. 

This is no normal rescue. There are no regular flights into the South Pole between February and October — and a winter evacuation has been ordered only twice before, in 2001 and 2003. The National Science Foundation (NSF), which manages U.S. Antarctic research programs, won’t identify the patient or the illness, but, says NSF spokesman Peter West, “I think you can extrapolate from the fact that we're doing a flight at this time of year, and the fact that we’ve waived the considerations of the health of the patient and the safety of the crews, that it is a serious situation."

While the sun hasn’t crept above the horizon since March, winter in the Southern Hemisphere officially started Monday. Temperatures at the pole typically run around -75 degrees this time of year — cold enough to freeze fuel and turn the hydraulic fluid used to operate an aircraft’s landing gear to jelly.

Landing at the South Pole involves touching down on a runway of groomed snow atop the continent’s two-mile-thick ice sheet, with the flight crew straining to pick out the runway in whiteout conditions, says New York Air National Guard Lt. Col. Dave Panzera. “You don’t want to be making mistakes,” he says. “There’s a lot of things that can be gotchas down there, from the terrain to the weather to the ice itself.”

The planes en route to the station are two De Havilland Twin Otters, high-latitude workhorses capable of landing on short, snowy runways with skis. Twin Otter planes that are equipped with skis are the only aircraft that can facilitate the intensely cold flights and landings on a landmass made of ice. They’re flown by the Canadian airlift company Kenn Borek, and can operate in temperatures as low as -100 degrees.

The plan is to stop first at the British research station at Rothera, about 600 miles from South America. When weather permits, one plane will make the 1,500-mile flight to the pole; the other will stay in Rothera as a search-and-rescue craft, West said.

Panzera flies much larger LC-130H transports for the Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing, which supplies Antarctic research stations in the summer. It was the 109th that retrieved Dr. Jerri Nielsen from the polar station in October 1999, after a winter in which she had to treat herself for breast cancer before being evacuated.

“The South Pole can become somewhat of a milk run, but I never take it for granted,” he says. “You’ll have that moment on a go-around or on a landing that will remind you, ‘Hey, there’s nothing routine about this.’ ”

Kenn Borek, which has flown in the Antarctic since the late 1980s, lost a Twin Otter and its three-man crew in January 2013, when it crashed into the side of a mountain near the coast.

“These are some intrepid men and women who fly those aircraft,” he said. “They do an amazing job. It’s just a very unforgiving place.” 

UPDATE: 6/22/2016

Two Twin Otter planes faced extreme conditions to transport an ill research station worker to safety today.

The two Twin Otter aircrafts that departed from Calgary, Canada, on June 14 and flew 9,880 miles to the research station, after officials determined that the worker’s medical condition could not be treated onsite, arrived today. The rescue route to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station on Tuesday (6/21) included fueling stops in Denver, Ecuador, and Chile before the planes made their initial touchdown on the 7th continent.

While one plane is currently stationed at Amundsen-Scott for search-and-rescue purposes, the other is currently en route on a 10-hour flight to transport the worker to a British medical facility in Antarctica, located 1,500 miles away. They should be landing sometime today (6/22).

"The Twin Otter aircraft flying an Antarctic medical-evacuation mission has left the National Science Foundation's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station en route to the British Antarctic Survey's Rothera Station," the US National Science Foundation wrote on Facebook.

To reach the ill worker, the pilots of the Twin Otters faced not only extreme flight distances, but also harsh weather and inhospitable conditions. The 11,380-mile journey was marked with 24 hours of Arctic winter darkness and temperatures of -76 degrees. These types of circumstances make successful rescue operations rare, and risky. 

The nature of the medical emergency that required the rescue has not been released on privacy grounds.

Additional reporting by Lauren Steele