A Twin Otter plane carrying evacuees from the South Pole lands at Rothera research station on the Antarctic coast. (British Antarctic Survey)

For the third time ever, rescue workers have successfully evacuated someone from the South Pole during the brutal Antarctic winter, the National Science Foundation said.

A plane carrying two sick workers from the Amundsen-Scott research station arrived on the Antarctic Coast early Wednesday afternoon, following a harrowing 10-hour flight across the continent. Both workers require medical attention not available at the station, prompting the rare rescue effort.

Image: Robert Schwarz, National Science Foundation. The Twin Otter aircraft flying an Antarctic medical-evacuation mission has left the National Science Foundation’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station en route to the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera Station.
The Twin Otter aircraft flying an Antarctic medical-evacuation mission prepares to depart from Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. (Robert Schwarz/National Science Foundation)

For privacy reasons, the foundation couldn't provide information about current medical condition of the patients, but NSF spokesperson Peter West said that the mission went as planned.

"Which, given the conditions down there, is pretty good," he added. "... I guess relieved is the right word."

Typically, none of the 50 or so people who overwinter at Amundsen-Scott can leave between February and October. One former worker described the South Pole as more inaccessible than the International Space Station.

During the six-month polar night, when the sun never rises and the wind chill regularly dips below minus-100 degrees Fahrenheit, flight to the station is all but impossible. Fuel freezes to an unusable jelly at those temperatures, and it’s unsafe for planes to fly over terrain they can’t see. In the past, a winter worker with cancer and another who suffered a stroke have remained at the station until October, when flights to the pole resume.

The Twin Otter lands at the South Pole. (Robert Schwarz/National Science Foundation)
The Twin Otter lands at the South Pole. (Robert Schwarz/National Science Foundation)

But this time the NSF, which runs the South Pole station, decided that the circumstances at the pole demanded an evacuation. Two planes were dispatched to Rothera research station, a British-operated base on the Antarctic coast, last week. One left for the South Pole on Tuesday, while the second stayed behind to provide search and rescue capability should the main plane go down.

One of the patients had a condition that was being treated at the station, West said, but when the second person fell seriously ill and required rescue, it was decided that both should be evacuated.

The two sick workers are due to fly next to Punta Arenas in Chile, the nearest mainland airport. From there, they will be taken to hospitals for treatment.

The plane that rescued them — a hardy Twin Otter operated by the Canadian firm Kenn Borek Air — is one of the only aircraft capable of flying at such low temperatures. For the final leg of the trip to the pole, it was outfitted for skis to land on the snow and ice there.

Kenn Borek pilots carried out the two previous evacuation missions: one in 2001 to rescue a doctor with pancreatitis and a second in 2003 for a environmental health and safety officer who developed a serious gallbladder infection.

“You’re the only plane flying on an entire continent,” said Sean Loutitt, the chief pilot for Kenn Borek on both those missions. “You have to be prepared to be totally self-reliant if something goes wrong.”