Second mercy dash to Antarctica

FAREWELL: The last sunset passed in Antarctica last month.
FAREWELL: The last sunset passed in Antarctica last month.

Night-vision goggles have proved crucial for a second emergency dash to Antarctica within three weeks to evacuate a seriously ill American to Christchurch.

With only a few hours of twilight at the McMurdo station even at midday, the United States Air Force C-17 Globemaster made the 4000km, 10-hour return flight from Christchurch to airlift a man who had fallen ill while wintering over at McMurdo Station.

The plane, which had a military medical team on board, landed back in Christchurch on Friday night.

A similar winter medevac for another ill American was completed on April 22, two days before the final sunrise at the station for almost four months.

A spokesman for the National Science Foundation, which manages the US Antarctic Programme, said today the Pegasus ice runway was equipped with special marking systems, which allowed flights to be performed with night-vision goggles.

That technology was needed on Friday with only a few hours of twilight a day at the runway.

''Winter is descending on the continent, heralding several months of darkness and extreme cold,'' he said.

It was a frigid -23degC at McMurdo Station at midday last Friday.

The last scheduled flight left on March 9 but were due to restart on September 1.

He declined to give details about the man's health for privacy reasons.

However, the man first contacted McMurdo medical personnel shortly before last month's medevac flight but the seriousness of his medical condition was not apparent until early May, the spokesman said.

''Medical evaluation of the case indicate that it was prudent to fly the patient out of Antarctica to permit a wider range of medical options than are available on the continent.

''While Friday's flight was specifically to evacuate the sick man, it also allowed some new staff to fly to Antarctica plus fresh produce and mail were taken to boost morale for the winter-over crew.

Winter medevacs to Antarctica are rare and it is extremely unusual to have two in one season.

Someone was evacuated from the US station in August last year, not long before regular flights resumed, and in 2011, a sick American was airlifted from McMurdo about the end of June.

According to the US Antarctic Programme's website, 143 staff were to winter over this year at its McMurdo station, the largest of NSF's three Antarctic research stations.

Antarctica New Zealand's Scott Base a few kilometres away had 10 staff and 5 Antarctic Heritage Trust conservators wintering over.

All staff had to pass a rigorous physical examination and medical tests to be allowed to work on the icy southern most continent.

The Press