Sick American evacuated from Antarctica in mercy flight as blizzard conditions ease

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Plane evacuates sick US man from Antarctica

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — A New Zealand air force plane made a rare wintertime landing on an ice runway in Antarctica on a mercy mission Tuesday to evacuate an American worker in serious medical condition, officials said.

Blizzard conditions eased to allow the Orion aircraft with three medical staff aboard to land at the U.S. McMurdo Station science base on the north Antarctic coast before refueling and returning on a seven-hour flight back to New Zealand. The patient was taken to a Christchurch Hospital after landing, Air force spokesman Squadron Leader Kavae Tamariki said.

An initial rescue bid on Sunday was forced to turn back because of blizzards. Temperatures at the base have been about minus 32 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 35 Celsius) in recent days.

Tamariki said earlier that the plane landed at around midday Tuesday during a brief period of daylight and clear weather, and spent about an hour and a half on the ground before taking off with the patient.

“It’s going fine so far,” Tamariki told The Associated Press. He said the patient was stable.

The man’s identity, exact condition and occupation have not been disclosed. He works for U.S. company Raytheon, which provides support services — such as supplies, transportation, accommodation — for the U.S. National Science Foundation at McMurdo.

“The medical advice is to get him out of there as soon as possible for hospital care,” Raytheon Polar Services New Zealand operations manager, Kerry Chuck, told the AP earlier.

The U.S. has more than 500 staff that spend the bleak winter — from March through October — at McMurdo each year. Flights are usually only made during the summer months, when most scientists are ferried in and out of the station. Icebreaker ships are used to bring in fuel.

A few winter evacuations of sick workers have been undertaken from Antarctica, including a dramatic midwinter flight in 1999, when blazing fuel barrels to lit the runway, to pick up a female American doctor at a South Pole station who contracted breast cancer.

Last September, an American working at McMurdo Station who suffered cardiac problems was evacuated to New Zealand by air force airplane in a serious but stable condition.

A broad range of scientific research is conducted at the station, including the Antarctic sea and its marine life, the annual fight for survival of the world’s largest penguin colonies, and the depletion of the ozone layer.

(This version CORRECTS that winter in Antarctica is from March through October, not October through March.)

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