The Canadian flight crews who rescued two sick workers from the South Pole in an "audacious" operation amid blizzards and –60 C temperatures have been honoured with a Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Trophy for outstanding achievement.

In June 2016, the Calgary-based Kenn Borek Air team flew two Twin Otter aircraft from Calgary to Chile, a journey of 12,500 km in 45 hours. After a delay due to bad weather, they then made the perilous 1,600-km journey to Rothera, Antarctica.

One plane then travelled another 2,400 kilometres to the U.S. National Science Foundation's Amundsen-Scott Research station at the South Pole to pick up two people who needed to be taken to hospital.

Pilot Wally Dobchuk, who was one of those honoured on Wednesday night, said at the time that after a blizzard held the team up in Chile for two days, the weather began to co-operate.

"It all sort of came into place for us," Dobchuk said. "Once we landed, I think everything went as planned."

Watch footage from the medevac rescue in Antarctica0:29

The team had a limited window to get to the research station due to deteriorating weather conditions. Flights in and out of the station are usually not planned between February and October because of the extreme cold and darkness in the Antarctic at that time.

Plane landed in darkness on compacted snow

The Calgary company provides contractual logistical support to the foundation's Antarctic research programs.

The planes used by Kenn Borek Air can operate in extremely low temperatures and land on skis. With no tarmac runway at the South Pole, the aircraft landed in darkness on compacted snow.

Pilot Jim Haffey, who then flew the second plane from Rothera back to Chile, said the two patients were ambulatory for that flight.

"They seemed to be happy and alert, and kind of excited to get going," he said at the time.

Pilot Wally Dobchuk recounts the rescue mission timeline from start to finish6:46

Aviation Week Network honoured the flight crews earlier this month for heroism.

"The time of year when no aircraft has ever made the journey across the Drake Passage, known for its vicious winds and storms, and then on into the South Pole," the industry group said in a release.

It was – 60 C without the wind chill at the time.

'It's rather an audacious thing'

Margaret Weitekamp nominated the Kenn Borek team in the Current Achievement category of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Trophy. 

Established in 1985, the award recognizes outstanding achievements in the fields of aerospace science and technology and their history.

"It is only the third time anyone has flown in and out of the South Pole in the middle of the Antarctic winter," she told The Homestretch on Wednesday.

"It was only a day after the solstice, which makes it the longest, darkest day of that season and so it's rather an audacious thing to plan not only to fly into Antarctica, which is usually not done in the Antarctic winter, but then to go all the way to the South Pole and back. It was just a mighty bit of flying."

The Kenn Borek crew members lauded by the Smithsonian included:

  • Chief pilot Wallace (Wally) Dobchuk.
  • Capt. James Haffey.
  • First officer Sebastian Trudel.
  • First officer Lindsay Owen.
  • Aircraft maintenance engineer Michael McCrae.
  • Aircraft maintenance engineer Gerald Cirtwill.
  • Medic Thai Verzone.
  • Medic John Loomis.

They were honoured Wednesday night at a black-tie dinner in Washington, D.C.

"The winners of the 2017 Trophy have achieved daring feats of exploration and determination," Gen. J.R. (Jack) Dailey, the John and Adrienne Mars Director of the museum, said in a release.

'The Kenn Borek Air team's successful rescue mission recalls an earlier era of bold accomplishments, before aviation connected nearly every point on the globe.'

- Gen. J. R. Dailey of the Smithsonian

"The Kenn Borek Air team's successful rescue mission recalls an earlier era of bold accomplishments, before aviation connected nearly every point on the globe."

The museum also awarded the 2017 Trophy for Lifetime Achievement to Peter Theisinger, who has led a number of major unmanned space science flight missions for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, including three successful Mars rover missions.

Kenn Borek Air Antarctic rescue route

With files from The Homestretch, Carolyn Dunn, Kyle Bakx and Francois Biber

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said the Kenn Borek Air crews made the flight from Calgary to the South Pole in 10 hours. In fact, they left Calgary on June 14, 2016, and landed in Chile 45 hours later. After a delay due to bad weather, they reached the Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula on June 20. The next day, one of the planes travelled on to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
    Mar 30, 2017 12:45 AM MT