Rescue Plane Arrives in Antarctica, but the Hard Part Is Still to Come

The team has reached the land of eternal night.

British Antarctic Survey

A daring rescue mission to bring back a sick scientist from the South Pole has just touched down on Antarctic ice. This milestone comes six days after the National Science Foundation ordered the evacuation. The two Twin Otter planes have flown all the way from Calgary, Canada, and have already been delayed due to unfavorable weather conditions. The team still has 1,500 miles to go to reach the South Pole — an almost unimaginable journey at the darkest moment of Antarctica’s long winter. The temperature right now is -58 degrees Fahrenheit, below the freezing point for jet fuel.

This mission isn’t unprecedented: Two similar rescues were attempted in 2001 and 2003, and both were successful. Before that, no one thought it was possible. The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is home to about 50 scientists and technicians over the winter months, and they understand well that once the last plane leaves in February, they’re pretty much stuck there. In 1999, the research station’s doctor biopsied a cancerous lump in her own breast and self-administered chemotherapy for six months until a plane could come in, according to the Washington Post.

Both successful rescues were undertaken by Kenn Borek Air, the same Canadian company hired for the current one. A documentary on the 2001 mission can be seen here.

The National Science Foundation won’t say what the specific nature of the current medical emergency is, citing the privacy of the patient. The organization is considering the evacuation of a second staff member, although this decision has not yet been made.

The crews, consisting of pilots, mechanics, and medics, have landed at the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera Research Station. It is located at Antarctica’s northern point, and the current temperature of 25 degrees is positively balmy compared to what they must be prepared for at the pole. Still, Rothera is in the depths of winter, and the sun will not rise there for more than a week.

Only one of the two crews will attempt the flight to the South Pole, when they have rested and the weather is clear. The second plane will stay behind in case a rescue mission is needed for the first. Each plane can only carry about 12 hours of fuel for the 10-hour journey; after four or five hours, they will reach a point of no return where they have to continue to the pole no matter the conditions in order to refuel and come home. (It would be easier, by a long shot, to evacuate astronauts from the International Space Station.)