Medical evacuation mission launched to South Pole

n this 2003 photo, a Twin Otter flies out of the South Pole on a previous medical flight (Jason Medley, NSF)
n this 2003 photo, a Twin Otter flies out of the South Pole on a previous medical flight (Jason Medley, NSF)

An aircraft is on its way to a scientific station at the South Pole for a medical evacuation.

Two propeller-driven Twin Otter aircraft, operated by Canadian firm Kenn Borek Air, Ltd., left Wednesday morning (local time) on the first leg of an intercontinental flight to the Pole.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has launched the flight, which won't reach the NSF's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station until June 19, and is highly weather-dependent.

"After comprehensive consultation with outside medical professionals, agency officials decided that a medical situation at the South Pole Station warrants returning a member of the station's winter crew to a hospital that can provide a level of medical care that is unavailable at the station," NSF says.

The patient is seasonally employed on a contract to work for NSF, who is not releasing any further personal or medical information.

It's currently mid-winter in Antarctica and June is the darkest month of the year on the continent. Normally, flights in and out of Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station are not planned between February and October due to the extreme cold and darkness.

The aircraft will fly from Canada via South America to Rothera, a research station on the Antarctic Peninsula managed by the British Antarctic Survey. One will remain at Rothera to provide search-and-rescue capability, while the other aircraft will fly the roughly 1500 miles from Rothera to the Pole to pick the patient up.

Kenn Borek has the experience of flying two similar medical evacuation flights -- one in 2001 and another in 2003. The Twin Otter aircraft are able to operate in extremely low temperatures and are able to land on skis. As there is no tarmac runway at the South Pole, the aircraft must land in total darkness on compacted snow.

Amundsen-Scott is one of three year-round stations NSF operates in Antarctica as part of the US Antarctic Program. There are 48 people wintering at the station.