A rescue team left today for the South Pole, flying into the face of high winds and near-total darkness on a risky effort to evacuate an ailing American doctor working at the end of the world.
Ronald Shemenski, 59, is the only physician among 50 researchers working at the Amundsen Scott-South Pole station in Antarctica.
He recently suffered a gall bladder illness and has been diagnosed with the potentially life-threatening condition known as pancreatitis.
Two eight-seater propeller planes took off at first light from Punta Arenas, Chile’s southernmost city some 2,240 miles south of the capital of Santiago, en route to a British base on Antarctica.
After landing, one of the Twin Otter planes then will begin a daring 10-hour flight to the ice-covered and wind-swept South Pole.
The twin-engine planes are outfitted with skis and said to be the only planes capable of reaching the Pole at this time of year, when the approach of winter heralds continual darkness and freezing temperatures of 103 degrees below Fahrenheit (minus 75 Celsius).
In a separate rescue effort, four Americans also in need of medical attention were to be airlifted out of another research station on the other side of the continent’s edge on Monday by the New Zealand Air Force.
Those efforts were also being complicated by hazardous conditions.
Freezing temperatures and only a meagre half hour of daylight will mean the aircraft will spend just an hour on the ground loading the four Americans and refuelling before making the seven-hour return flight to Christchurch, New Zealand.
But the effort under way to rescue Shemenski is unprecedented, said Steve Penikett, general manager of Kenn Borek Air Ltd, a Canadian airline company leading the evacuation.
Flights to the South Pole are usually flown only from November to February, before polar conditions make flights virtually impossible.
Officials originally had planned to use a giant LC-130 Hercules plane to fly into the Pole, but instead opted for the more agile Twin Otters. The planes are often used for hopscotching around the North Pole.
Penikett said the plane flying to the South Pole station required two pilots, an engineer, a replacement physician and a nurse. Their flight will be monitored from the Rothera research station, the plane’s initial stop, he said.
The conditions will be harrowing: the crew trying to fly Shemenski out will land in the dark, bone-chilling cold with ice as a runway and no tower to guide the landing.
‘‘We might as well be on Mars those issues are driving the risk up dramatically,’’ Penikett said. ‘‘We’re going to give it a try, but we’re not going to go in there like cowboys.’’
From Ohio, Shemenski is an employee of Raytheon Polar Services Corp. of Englewood, Colorado.
The company operates in Antarctica under a contract with the National Science Foundation based in Washington, DC.
Some 50 U.S. scientists work at the South Pole base during the polar winter, carrying out experiments in astrophysics and astronomy, with a range of sophisticated telescopes. Researchers from Britain, Australia and New Zealand work at other research stations across Antarctica.
The rescue effort is the second in two years.
In October 1999, Dr Jerri Nielsen, the lone physician at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station was evacuated after she discovered a breast tumour that was diagnosed as cancerous.