Kenn Borek crews capable of risky rescue mission to Antarctica, says former pilot

Pilots from Kenn Borek Air flying a rescue operation to a South Pole research station are faced with a dangerous but doable mission, said a former pilot who’s made the trip twice.

Pilots will be facing temperatures of -67 C, driving winds and no light

A Twin Otter lands at the Amundsen-Scott research station near the South Pole. (National Science Foundation)

Pilots from Kenn Borek Air flying a rescue operation to a South Pole research station are faced with a dangerous but doable mission, said a former pilot who has made the trip twice.

A pair of Twin Otter planes left Tuesday en route to the Amundsen-Scott Station near the South Pole to airlift someone needing urgent medical attention.

The trip was expected to take about five days.

One of the planes will stay at the Rothera research station — on the northern tip of Antarctica — while the other will continue on to the Amundsen-Scott Station near the centre of the continent.

Not only will the pilots be faced with bitter cold and driving winds, there will be no light, or landmarks, to guide them.

The mission is risky but can be done if conditions co-operate, former Kenn Borek pilot Sean Louttit told the Calgary Eyeopener on Thursday.

Now manager of regulatory affairs for Canadian North, Louttit made the perilous flight to the Amundsen-Scott Station twice — once in 2001 and again in 2003 — up against "similar conditions to what the guys will be facing this week."

"Which is cold temperatures and no light whatsoever down at the South Pole," he said.

"Two of the more challenging legs for them will be from Punta Arenas, Chile, down to Rothera, which is the British Antarctic survey station, and the leg from there to the South Pole."

Former Kenn Borek pilot Sean Louttit appears on the Calgary Eyeopener program. (CBC)

Cold temperatures might not be the right term as the mercury will be dipping down around the -67 C mark.

"That's what we met when we got there in 2001," said Louttit, noting GPS and navigational systems are used to pinpoint the runway.

"Navigation works the same as it would in the summer season, but you definitely have that cold temperature you have to deal with and you don't really know what to expect until you open the door and hit it face on."

Point of no return

There will be a point in the trip where the pilots will have to commit 100 per cent to making it to the South Pole.

"They carry as much fuel as they can stick in that aircraft," said Louttit.

"For that last leg from Rothera to the South Pole, the big concern, of course, is that you don't have enough fuel to actually go to the South Pole, turn around and come back.

"Along the route you have a point where you have to make that decision that you're going to be committed to going to the South Pole and landing there or you turn around and go back to Rothera."

Knowing someone's life could be on the line adds to the pressure but pilots are trained to handle that, said Louttit.

"You do your job," he said.

"You put everything else aside, concentrate on what you can control and do it safely."

Previous tragedy

In 2013, three Canadians were killed when a Kenn Borek plane crashed into an Antarctic mountainside.

The bodies of Bob Heath, 55, of Inuvik, N.W.T., Perry Andersen, 36, of Collingwood, Ont., and Mike Denton, 25, of Calgary remain on Mount Elizabeth, entombed in the wreckage of the plane in which they died.

Transportation Safety Board investigators were unable to pinpoint the cause of that crash.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener