There’s trouble at the South Pole, and for once, it’s not related to climate change. For just the third time in human history, two sick staff members at the Amundsen-Scott research station, the southernmost human outpost on the planet, were flown out on an emergency plane this week after medical staff concluded that they did not have the means to treat them on site.
Although one of the two patients could be treated at the research station, the second fell seriously ill within a short space of time, and it was determined that an evacuation was required. They spent a harrowing and turbulent 10 hours flying 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles) across the icy southern continent before landing at the British Antarctic Survey's Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula. When they arrived, they were temporarily tended to before being prepped to fly to Chile for further treatment.
The unfortunate pair’s medical conditions were not elaborated on by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the organization that runs the station, for privacy reasons. In any case, it seems that despite the high-risk nature of the daring rescue, everything went according to plan.
“I guess relieved is the right word,” NSF spokesperson Peter West told the Washington Post.
It can’t be overstated how dangerous this was. No one at Amundsen-Scott is normally able to leave between February and October, and this mission happened pretty much at the height of the Antarctic winter. Some describe the research station at the moment as being less accessible than the International Space Station. With no sunlight to light the way, temperatures that dip below -73°C (-100°F), and fuel that's quite likely to freeze mid-flight, it’s easy to see why.
The plane sent to rescue them was a Twin Otter operated by Kenn Borek Air, a Canadian company. It’s one of the only aircraft able to fly in such frigid conditions, and just to be safe, two planes were sent just in case one of them crashed in the harsh conditions; the second stayed behind to allow for search and rescue in case this occurred. Equipped with skis, they didn’t need a runway for landing.
Most terrifyingly, these otherwise well-equipped planes have about 13 hours of fuel, which even for a 10-hour flight is risky. Once the halfway point was reached, whatever the weather, the planes could not turn back.
Although there were many things that could have gone wrong, the two workers are, at present, not reported to be in critical condition, and they will soon fly to Punta Arenas in Chile, the nearest mainland airport. From there, they will be transported to a hospital for further medical treatment.
Image in text: The evacuation flight just before it took off. Robert Schwarz, NSF via Facebook