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South Pole Rescue Flight of 2 Workers Finishes Last Leg

The Foundation said the mission was launched to remove a member of the research team after the crew member became ill and required medical care unavailable at the station

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    In this photo provided by the National Science Foundation, a small plane picks up a sick worker at the U.S. South Pole science station. Once the sick patient and the crew rest, they will then fly off Antarctica for medical attention that could not be provided on the remote continent.

    A small plane with two sick workers has arrived at a British research station in Antarctica, safely finishing the first leg in a daring rescue mission from a remote U.S. South Pole station, officials said. 

    National Science Foundation spokesman Peter West confirmed that the Twin Otter turboprop landed Wednesday afternoon at Rothera, a station on the Antarctic peninsula run by the British Antarctic Survey, after a 1,500-mile flight from the South Pole. 

    "It's all going according to plan," said British Antarctic Survey spokesman Paul Seagrove. The plane arrived around 1:30 p.m. EDT. 

    West said it's likely that the rescue team will rest and fly out Thursday. But a second small plane, also owned by a Canadian company, and its flight crew are available if the weather is good, the patients are up to it, and officials decide to fly to southern Chile, the closest and most likely spot for medical treatment, Seagrove said. 

    "It's ready to fly them right off to Punta Arenas," Seagrove said. The flight to Chile takes about seven or eight hours, he said. 

    A webcam shows partly sunny skies in Rothera. The temperature is a balmy 27.5 degrees (minus 2.5 Celsius). That's toasty compared to the Amundsen-Scott research station at the South Pole where it was minus 75 (minus 60 Celsius) in the morning. 

    The U.S. agency won't identify the sick workers or their conditions, citing medical privacy. It wasn't known until Wednesday whether the second ailing worker would also be evacuated. 

    Before they left, there were 48 people — 39 men and nine women — at the station for the winter. 

    Sean Rayford/Getty Images

    Normally planes don't go to the polar outpost from February to October because of the dangers of flying in the pitch-dark and cold. The first day of winter in the Southern Hemisphere was Monday — the sun will not rise at the South Pole till the first day of spring in September. 

    Steve Barnet, who works with a University of Wisconsin astronomy team at the polar station but is in the U.S. now, lauded the rescue crew. 

    "The courage of the pilots to make the flight in extremely harsh conditions is incredible and inspiring," Barnet wrote in an email. 

    The extreme cold affects a lot of things on planes, including fuel, which needs to be warmed before takeoff, batteries and hydraulics, according to West. The Twin Otter can fly in temperatures as low as minus 103 degrees (minus 75 degrees Celsius), he said. 

    "The air and Antarctica are unforgiving environments and punishes any slackness very hard," said Tim Stockings, operations director for the British Antarctic Survey. "If you are complacent it will bite you." 

    "Things can change very quickly down there" with ice from clouds, high winds and snow, he said. 

    There have been three emergency evacuations from the Amundsen-Scott station since 1999. The station has a doctor, a physician's assistant and is connected to doctors in the U.S. for consults, West said. But sometimes workers need medical care that can't be provided at the South Pole. 

    The 1999 flight, which was done in Antarctic spring with slightly better conditions, rescued the station's doctor, Jerri Nielsen, who had breast cancer and had been treating herself. Rescues were done in 2001 and 2003, both for gallbladder problems. 

    Scientists have had a station at the South Pole since 1956. It does astronomy, physics and environmental science with telescopes, seismographs and instruments that monitor the atmosphere. The foundation runs two other research stations in Antarctica.