Civilian Aircraft to Evacuate South Pole Patient

Civilian Aircraft to Evacuate South Pole Patient

Peter West

and closing

The projected air route of the Twin Otters that will evacuate Dr. Ronald Shemenski from Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

A team of civilian aviators and medical personnel will attempt to evacuate and replace an ailing physician at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, employing small propeller-driven aircraft to perform an unprecedented flight in extreme conditions some time next week, the National Science Foundation announced today.

NSF had earlier initiated two parallel planning efforts, in a process necessitated by the rapid approach of winter. In one, giant LC-130 “Hercules” aircraft flown by the New York Air National Guard were sent toward Antarctica. The other option involved using an eight-seat, twin-engine plane called a “Twin Otter.” Air Force, Department of Interior, and NSF officials analyzed the two options in details and concluded that the Twin Otter airframe offered the best chance of getting to and from the Pole in the near-dark with temperatures around – 75 Celsius (-103 Fahrenheit).

According to the plan, two de Havilland Twin Otters will leave Canada on Saturday and reach the southernmost point in South America late next week. From there, they will fly to Britain’s Rothera research station on the Antarctic Peninsula. When weather conditions permit, one of the planes will then start on a 10-hour flight to the pole station carrying two pilots, an engineer, a replacement physician and a nurse. The other Twin Otter and its crew will remain at Rothera as backup resources.

NSF already has received permission from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) to use Rothera in the evacuation.

After landing at the Pole, the crew plans to shut down the aircraft and rest for 10 hours before restarting the engines and loading station physician Dr. Ronald Shemenski, 59, who has been suffering from gallstones and associated pancreatitis.

Shemenski passed a gallstone earlier this week, relieving his condition. After additional ultrasound and blood tests, expert medical advisors in the United States concluded that he was recovering. However, patients with gallstones who are not treated surgically face a substantial risk of recurrence and potentially dangerous complications.

The physicians consulting with NSF and Raytheon Polar Services Co., of Englewood, Colo., Raytheon’s logistics contractor for Antarctica, reached the conclusion that it would be best to remove him from the Pole station, if doing so did not pose a significant risk to the rescue team.

The Twin Otters are operated by Kenn Borek Air Ltd., a Canadian firm that flies for the U.S. Antarctic Program under a contract to Raytheon Polar Service Co., of Englewood, Colo., NSF’s logistics contractor.

NSF officials contacted the U.S. Air Force earlier this week to request that the Air Guard develop plans for evacuating Dr. Shemenski. The mission would have been carried out by the 109th Airlift Wing of the N.Y. Air National Guard, which flies the nation’s only fleet of ski-equipped large aircraft. The Guard flies the air support for the USAP, transporting scientists and support personnel to the continent from New Zealand, ferrying cargo needed for a project to rebuild the South Pole station, and deploying science parties into the field.

Three ski-equipped LC-130 aircraft departed New York earlier in the week and were en route to Christchurch, N.Z. to be ready to fly into Antarctica, if necessary. Once the decision was made to employ the Twin Otters, the LC-130’s, which had reached Hickham Air Base in Hawaii were recalled to Stratton.

Karl Erb, the director of NSF’s Office of Polar Programs, praised the 109th for their efficiency in preparing to carry out the mission and for the willingness of the 109th personnel and their families to make sacrifices on behalf of Dr. Shemenski.

“The performance of the 109th in this situation was exemplary,” he said. “The US Antarctic Program has came to expect excellence from the Guard in performance of its duties, and we have never taken it for granted. We also very much appreciate the sacrifices made both by the mission personnel and their families to maintain the readiness that this evacuation mission would have called for.”

NSF officials noted that several factors, all of them weather-related, argued in favor of employing the Twin Otters instead of the much larger Hercules. The extreme temperatures at the Pole are less likely to affect the Twin Otter landing gear, which is less reliant on hydraulic fluids than are the Hercules. Also, it is considerably easier to bring the smaller quantities of fuel needed to power the Twin Otter to an operating temperature by moving into a heated area of the station.

The decision to use the smaller planes was made chiefly on the basis of their rated temperature range. The four-engine turboprop LC-130, the veteran workhorse of the Antarctic program, is rated safe down to -55 Celsius (-67 Fahrenheit). The Twin Otter is rated to -75 Celsius (-103 Fahrenheit). In addition, the large military aircraft would not have been able to attempt the flight to the Pole after April 22, when it becomes too dark and too cold to conduct the mission safely.

The Borek Twin Otters, however, have repeatedly flown the route from South America to the Pole. Moreover, the small aircraft can be completely refueled with only 1,000 gallons. That amount is available at a fuel “dump” between Rothera and the Pole.

On short notice, NSF recruited a replacement physician, Dr. Betty Carlisle, who is a veteran of two Antarctic winters — one at the Pole — and served during the last austral summer as the resident doctor at the McMurdo research station on Ross Island.

“We are extremely fortunate to have secured Dr. Carlisle,” said Erb. “While it is imperative to get Dr. Shemenski out, it is also essential to get a replacement on site in order to protect the health and safety of the other 49 people spending the winter at Pole station. “

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