Editors' Choice: Rescue crews fly to the bottom of the world

 - May 28, 2008, 7:30 AM

The crews of a pair of de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otters made history last April when they flew a daring rescue mission into the depths of the Antarctic winter, landing at the South Pole to rescue an ailing doctor. The mission braved lethally low temperatures to make an unprecedented landing in the deep-freeze of the Antarctic winter at 90 deg South–the ultimate southern destination.

Target of the rescue was Dr. Robert Shemenski, who had been suddenly stricken with life-threatening pancreatitis. The summertime window of operations for the regular Lockheed C-130 supply flights was long over. Once temperatures plummet into the -70s and -80s, metal becomes brittle and cracks easily, and an aircraft’s hydraulic fluids and fuel turn into jelly. For humans, exposed skin gets frostbitten within seconds and can be flayed away by the scouring action of wind and snow grains.

Designed for use in the frozen north, Canadian-built Twin Otters, with their high-pressure, deep-cold-resistant hydraulic systems, could do the job C-130 could not. Canadian polar bush operator Kenn Borek Air was chosen for the job.

On April 14 two Twin Otters were dispatched southward from their base in Calgary, Alberta. Leading the flight was Kenn Borek Air chief pilot Sean Loutitt with copilot Mark Cary. Flying the second DHC-6 was pilot Matt Gacek with Tony Szekely. The support team was headed by chief mechanic Pete Brown.

The ski-equipped twin turboprops took six days to make their way to the edge of the Antarctic continent. By day seven they were poised at the jump-off point at Rothera Station, headquarters for the British Antarctic Survey and just nine hours (via Twin Otter) from the South Pole.

Storms raged for two more nail-biting days. But a window of good weather afterward made the flight from the Antarctic coast and back disarmingly smooth. To illuminate the outlines of the South Pole station skiway, station crew set out barrels of blazing scrap lumber.

Safely down at “90 South,” the crews decided to rest before returning to Rothera with Dr. Shemenski. Weather for the return trip was almost tropical by Antarctic standards: eight-knot winds with temperatures of just -6 deg F.

From Rothera they pressed on across the Drake Passage, 300 mi of churning ocean linking the Atlantic and Pacific. At last touching down at Punta Arenas, at the extreme southern tip of Chile, Dr. Shemenski was transferred to an airliner destined for the U.S., where he underwent successful treatment of his pancreatitis.