NSF PR 01-29 - April 13, 2001
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Civilian Aircraft to Evacuate South Pole Patient
here or on the images for larger versions.
The projected air route of the Twin Otters
that will evacuate Dr. Ronald Shemenski
from Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
Views of a de Havilland Twin Otter flown
by Kenn Borek Air Ltd. under contract
to the U.S. Antarctic Program.
All photos: Peter West
/ National Science Foundation
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
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
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
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.
Editors: B-roll of Amundsen-Scott South Pole
Station, an animated locator map, and LC-130 aircraft
in Antarctica are available. Contact Dena Headlee,