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Monday, June 20, 2016

Mission : Grim Necessity

"It's never an easy place to fly.But there are additional challenges for a winter flight."
"Obviously, we wouldn't undertake this mission if, on the basis of medical experts, it wasn't felt that it was necessary to bring this person out of the South Pole, to a place where they can get treatment that's not available at the pole."
"They're flying across a continent the size of the U.S. and Mexico combined." 
"Weather is a very difficult thing to keep track of. [It's] much more difficult than it would be, say, in Canada, for example, or the United States."
Peter West, spokesman, National Science Foundation
An image from Kenn Borek's successful 2001 rescue flight to Antarctica's Amundsen-Scott research station, located at the South Pole.
Postmedia News    An image from Kenn Borek's successful 2001 rescue flight to Antarctica's Amundsen-Scott research station, located at the South Pole.

Famously, the world learned in 1999 just how remote and inaccessible Antarctica is during its winter season, when-mid February to late October are the times when it is accessible. When in a place that is exceedingly frigid at any time, it becomes even more so in its winter months, compounded by round-the-clock darkness as well as the distance it takes from civilization to the world's most isolated place on the planet.

This was when Dr. Jerri Nielson who had signed on for a year on contract to become the Amundsen-Scott Research Station's doctor-in-residence. Only to discover that she herself became her most-in-need of emergency treatment patient when she discovered herself with advanced breast cancer. Because she couldn't, at that time be evacuated, even for an emergency like hers, she consulted over email with cancer surgeons and proceeded to take her own breast biopsy.

An emergency follow-up drop of needed medical supplies for Dr. Nielson to embark upon a treatment protocol for her cancer resulted, with South Pole colleagues aiding Dr. Nielson as required to ensure that the treatment was carried forward. The chemotherapy that she trained her colleagues to administer resulted after a second biopsy using updated materials included in the drop confirmed her cancer diagnosis.
Chinstrap penguin dwarfed by Antarctic Ice, Nori Jemil
Photo: credit Nori Jemil

Fast forward to 2016, and two Twin Otter planes flying out of Calgary's Kenn Borek Air, prepared to navigate the expected and the unexpected in hopes of rescuing a severely ill researcher in a medical evacuation. One of the planes is to remain on arrival at the Rothera British station for search and rescue, and the second is set to travel forward to the Admunsen-Scott Research Station at the South Pole.

A seasonal employee with Lockheed Martin stationed there is in dire need of hospitalization, according to the National Science Foundation. The Amundsen-Scott Station represents a research hub operated by the United States located as far inland in Antarctica as it is possible to be, and as such it is one of the most isolated places on Earth.

The journey is 16,700 kilometre in length. But this is not just any journey. June represents the midpoint of the southern hemisphere's winter season where temperatures can and do hover around -60C. This, at a time and season where the ski remains dark for months on end, and weather always a questionmark, making flights rare. But the small passenger and cargo airline that is Kenn Borek has flown rescue missions there in the past.
Chris Martin / National Science Foundation via Postmedia News
Chris Martin / National Science Foundation via Postmedia News     Two Calgary pilots, Sean Loutitt and Mark Cary, landed this Kenn Borek plane at the South Pole in 2001 as part of a successful evacuation mission.

It flew into Amundsen-Scott to evacuate workers requiring hospitalization in 2001 and 2003. Yet the dangers are real and when a disaster occurs help is not just around the corner. In January 2013, a flight delivering fuel to an Italian research team saw one of Kenn Borek's planes crash into an Antarctic mountain south of New Zealand; all three people aboard died.

The distance from Calgary to Amundsen-Scott requires stops in the U .S., Costa Rica, Ecuador and Chile -- accounting for those 16,700 kilometres. Upon leaving South America the planes fly south to Rothera to set up camp and from there decide when it would be most feasible to fly on for an aerial pass at Amundsen-Scott.


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