Illness forces mercy dash to Antarctica

06:19, Apr 26 2013
MERCY DASH: A US Globemaster flew from Washington to the ice, via Christchurch, to evacuate an unwell person from McMurdo Station.

A mercy mission to Antarctica has evacuated an ill American to Christchurch despite flights stopping six weeks earlier for winter.

The person became sick while wintering over at the United States' McMurdo Station on Ross Island, a few kilometres from New Zealand's Scott Base.

Last Saturday, a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster flew from a military base in Washington to Christchurch Airport and headed south the next day to airlift the patient, returning to Christchurch on Monday night.

It had a military medical team on board.

A spokesman for the National Science Foundation (NSF), which manages the US Antarctic Programme, declined to comment on whether the patient was treated in Christchurch or returned to the US.

''Honouring the patient's right to medical and personal privacy, NSF will not release additional detail regarding the patient's identity or condition,'' he said.


The US Antarctic Programme's website says 143 staff would spend winter at McMurdo Station.

Normally, flights close in early March and no flights were scheduled until the start of the next austral summer scientific research season.

The spokesman said a brief window of daylight at McMurdo Station made the flight possible.

Its Monday departure was only two days before the final sunrise for almost four months, plunging the continent into 24-hour darkness.

On Wednesday, a New Zealand contingent of 10 staff wintering over at Scott Base bade farewell to the Sun, which will not rise above the horizon again until August 19.

McMurdo's runway is equipped with lighting systems that allows flight operations to be performed during darkness.

Two years ago, a flight went to Antarctica mid-winter to collect another sick American.

The NSF spokesman said several types of aircraft were considered for last weekend's flight but the overall capability of the C-17, which landed on wheels rather than skis, made it the optimum choice for the mission.

The emergency flight had an upside for New Zealand and American staff hunkered down in Antarctica for winter as it allowed the delivery of fresh supplies, which would normally not happen before the first flights in early October.

''Although the flight was specifically made to evacuate the patient, the flight also carried morale items such as fresh produce and mail for the winter-over crew,'' the spokesman said.

Antarctic New Zealand sent supplies to Scott Base, where 10 of its staff would stay over winter, along with five Antarctic Heritage Trust conservators.

The Press