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14 September, 2003

Possible Medical Airlift

The rumor mill is flying here at McMurdo, and I do not want to add to it so I am trying to be careful here with my remarks.  The NSF has put out an official bulletin and you can search for that on Google for the hard facts.

A person is sick at the South Pole station and there is talk about a medical airlift to bring this person to a facility that can care for him.  Everyone is wondering when it will happen, but the thought is that it will be in just a few days when weather allows for it.  A final decision from NSF has not been made. Having a plane come here at this time of year is well out of the routine.  And having a plane go to the South Pole at this time of year is a very rare occurrence. It is very cold at the South Pole, at least minus 50F, and it is located nearly 10,000 feet high on Earth's ice cap.  The weather is changing rapidly with Spring approaching and this causes high winds. Currently the forecast this week looks good for the weather at the South Pole as it appears to be warming considerably and there may be a sun break on Wednesday.  A small plane can make it there but it is considered a very dangerous flight.  NSF would only launch such a mission if a person's life depended on it.

All personnel going to Antarctica complete a comprehensive medical check before coming here.  I had a complete physical and dental check; some people even get their wisdom teeth pulled before coming here.  However, unforeseen complications will arise. Our station has a small medical facility with a qualified doctor at all times. People who will spend the entire winter here must also go through psychological testing.  You should not think of everyone here as super athletes, we are just like everyone else, overweight, underweight, and some people here even smoke (yuck).

Here at McMurdo, preparations have begun.  The old runway, Pegasus, which I flew in on at Winfly, had been abandoned as they prepared the new ice runway.  The idea was that they did not want to ruin Pegasus when the weather warms, so they allowed it to be covered in snow.  If a C41 does have to make a landing here it will need to use Pegasus because the ice runway is not ready yet.  That means crews have to get the old runway functional.  Personnel have to be shifted, the fire crew has to prepare, and all things must be in place as the C41 will not stay but a few hours or it would risk being stuck here.

If it does occur then a twin otter aircraft would fly from Chile to Rothera, the British station, and then to the pole.  It could either return that way or come back to McMurdo where it would meet a C41 or similar military transport.

All of this comes at incredible expense and human effort.  Whether to unduly risk people's lives in a rescue is a difficult decision for the National Science Foundation to make, and it is testimony to the remoteness of this continent and the importance of our science mission here.  We all wish the best for the people involved.

A view of a Twin Otter craft that might be used for the airlift. (from NSF files)

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