Night-time rescue mission to Antarctica

Last updated 12:50 14/05/2013

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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 4000-kilometre 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 that the Pegasus ice runway was equipped with special marking systems, which allowed flights to be performed with pilots wearing night-vision goggles.

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

It was -23 degrees Celsius at McMurdo Station at midday last Friday.

The last scheduled flight to the ice left on March 9 and they are due to resume on September 1.

The spokesman declined to give details about the man's health for privacy reasons, but said 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.

"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," the spokesman said.

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

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

One evacuation was made 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 McMurdo, the largest of foundation's three Antarctic research stations.

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

All staff must pass a rigorous physical examination and medical tests to be allowed to work on the continent.

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- The Press

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