Antarctic rescue underway by Calgary-based airline Kenn Borek Air

Michael Platt_op


It’s a race against time, but the most dangerous opponent in this life-saving cross-global rescue is the barometer.


For just the third time in history, a Calgary-based bush airline is being called upon to pluck an ailing member of an Antarctic research team from the South Pole in the darkness of winter — and the experience of those two successful missions, though limited, makes Kenn Borek Air the best chance this patient has.

“After consulting with medical professionals, it’s been determined that this person does need to come out of the South Pole for treatment,” said Peter West, spokesman for the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“We can’t go into detail about the patient, but from the urgency of the mission, you can extrapolate the serious nature of this evacuation.”

On Tuesday morning, two Twin Otters owned by Kenn Borek Air left Calgary for a near 10,000-km journey expected to take at least five days, as the eight-seat, twin-propeller planes cross North America and then South America.

“The mission will be highly weather-dependent and the current best-case scenario is that a plane would arrive at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station no sooner than June 19,” reads the NSF website.

Details about the patient are being kept private, but the NSF says the person is seasonally employed through the Lockheed Martin Antarctic Support Contract which provides operations and research support for the United States Antarctic Program.

While there is basic medical care at the 48-person station, treating life-threatening illnesses and performing vital surgery is not possible.

As in the prior rescue missions in 2001 and 2003, the Canadian Otters will first aim for Rothera, a research station on the Antarctic Peninsula managed by the British Antarctic Survey, crossing to Antarctica from Punta Arenas, Chile.

From there, the weather becomes their biggest foe — and it will take the best weather-monitoring equipment available to make sure the aircraft can make the 10-hour, 2,400-km flight south to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, where the patient awaits.

“You can’t carry enough fuel to go from Rothera to the South Pole and back, so there’s a point of no return on the way in, after about four or five hours, where you have to make a decision that you are pretty sure you’ll be able to land.”

If anyone would know about clouds, storms and howling winter winds at the South Pole, it’s Sean Loutitt, the former Kenn Borek pilot who flew the first two missions more than a decade ago.

The first time, it was a race to pluck Dr. Ron Shemenski from the Amundsen-Scott station, after the base medical director developed pancreatitis and needed emergency surgery.

No one had tried such a thing before in the dead of the Antarctic winter, where utter darkness and howling winds make normal flying verboten, from the month of February to October — and usually, people on the pole are utterly isolated for half the year.

The American air force tried to launch a rescue but failed, because nothing they had could operate in the bitter cold — and that’s when a call went to Kenn Borek Air, where hardy Twin Otter aircraft and pilots used to polar extremes were ready to roll.

The Canadian Twin Otter rescue mission was a success, with the second plane kept at Rothera as a search-and-rescue back-up, and Loutitt landing at the pole on skis in -67C darkness to evacuate the sick doctor.

“You’re really left waiting for that perfect weather window to get in and out again,” he said.

The same strategy of using extra fuel tanks to bolster range helped the Calgary company rescue 51-year-old gall-bladder patient Barry McCue from the pole in 2003, with Loutitt again at the controls.

He admits that missing out on this third rescue mission has him slightly antsy for the adventure, but Loutitt, now a senior manager at Canadian North Inc., says the pilots behind the controls for mission number three are top-notch.

“You couldn’t ask for better pilots.”

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