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Kenn Borek Air crew says South Pole rescue mission 'just got away in time' before blizzard hit

The flight crew that rescued two sick workers at a research station at the South Pole last month described the successful mission as a tightly timed operation that had to take into account blizzards and –60 C temperatures.

Calgary-based company orchestrated pickup last month of 2 sick workers from Antarctica

The Kenn Borek Air team made the perilous 10-hour journey from Chile to Rothera, Antarctica in order to transport two sick people to a hospital. 0:29

The flight crew that rescued two sick workers from a research station at the South Pole last month described the successful mission as a tightly timed operation that had to take into account blizzards and –60 C temperatures. 

The Calgary-based Kenn Borek Air team made the perilous 10-hour journey last month from Chile to Rothera, Antarctica, in two Twin Otter planes.

  • See their rescue route at the bottom of this story

One of the planes 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 said that after a blizzard held the team up in Chile for two days, the weather began to co-operate.

The Calgary-based company Kenn Borek orchestrated a pickup last month of two sick workers from Antarctica in perilous weather conditions. 6:46

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

When the team arrived on the Antarctic peninsula, they believed they had about 48 hours of suitable conditions to get to the South Pole research station and back, Dobchuk said.  

But the weather started to deteriorate the morning they left Rothera for the pole. "We just got away in time," he said.

After safely landing at the South Pole, the crew rested and had dinner.

"The cook, thank you very much, he cooked us a nice buffalo steak," Dobchuk said. 

The next morning, they warmed up the plane for two hours, got the two people on board and took off again to return to Rothera, he said.

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. 

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.

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.

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

A Twin Otter plane operated by Calgary's Kenn Borek Air left Calgary on June 14 to help rescue two people in need of medical attention from an Antarctic research facility at the South Pole. They made the 2,400-kilometre, nine-hour trip on June 21 from the British Antarctic Survey's Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, rested, then returned to the British base with two patients. (CBC)