South Pole Medevac, June 2016

2003 Twin Otter takeoff from Pole
The 20 September 2003 Pole departure of Barry McCue's medevac
(photo by Jason Medley from the USAP photo library) (link to original).

The June 2016 medevac was first announced in this NSF press release issued on 15 June South Pole time (UTC+12, 14 June US/Canada Mountain Time) after the two Kenn Borek Air (KBA) Twin Otters had departed Calgary. The press release included the key statement, "After comprehensive consultation with outside medical professionals, agency officials decided that a medical situation at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station warrants returning a member of the station's winter crew to a hospital that can provide a level of medical care that is unavailable at the station," and it was accompanied by the above file photo from the 2003 medevac...and of course that photo appeared in many other media reports that day.

Interestingly, Wallace ("Wally") Dobchuck, who would be the lead pilot on the evolution, first learned about the possibility of the medevac about a week before it began...when he was at a review meeting in Boise with NSF where plans for Kenn Borek's upcoming season were to be discussed. Wally returned to Calgary where plans were being made and crews were being selected; on Saturday 11 June they were informed that the mission was on.

On the 14th, the two aircraft left Kenn Borek headquarters in Calgary, first flying to Centennial airport, south of Denver near the ASC offices. Here they picked up some essential mission equipment. They then continued on to McAllen, which is along the Rio Grande in far southern Texas. From this point, relief crews flew the Twin Otters south to Punta Arenas, while the primary crews continued south on commercial aircraft, so as to arrive well rested.

flight plan mapThe Twin Otters stopped in Liberia, Costa Rica as well as more than once in Chile, before reaching Punta Arenas (at right, a route map from this blog post about the medevac by 2012 IceCube winterover Carlos Pobes). This part of the timeline is not well documented... presumably the flight crews reached PA on commercial flights before the Twin Otters did, and had some extra down time. In any case, by the time the primary flight crews took over the Twin Otters, it was late evening in Punta Arenas, I'm thinking about 2200 local time (UTC-4) on 17 June, or 1400 South Pole time (NZST, UTC+12) on 18 June. (All times are SP times unless otherwise indicated). Punta Arenas and Rothera time is UTC-3). The primary air crews had arrived earlier and had about 36 hours rest before the next leg. Meanwhile, the two Kenn Borek medics had also arrived in PA.

file photo of RotheraBut...the weather closed in with a blizzard at Rothera, so the crews waited around for 2 days before finally heading south in the early morning (PA) hours of 20 June. They arrived about 6 hours later while it was still light enough to reconfigure both aircraft... including switching out their wheeled landing gear for skis (NSF press release announcing the arrival at Rothera--which also included the BAS file photo (left) of Rothera). After resting overnight, the next morning it looked like there would be a 48-hour weather window for a planned ~30 hour return trip to Pole. The primary flight crew, consisting of pilot Wally Dobchuck, copilot Sébastien Trudel, aircraft maintenance engineer Michael McCrae, along with medic Thai Verzone, left Rothera at about 0800 local time (UTC-3) on Tuesday 21 June (0100 SP time on Wednesday 22 June. The aircraft carried 7,000 lbs/1,000 gallons of fuel, including 2 250-gallon tanks in the fuselage, as well as 2 55-gallon drums. Things were a bit dicey early in the flight, as the weather had started to deteriorate, and it took a couple of hours for the aircraft to burn off enough fuel to be able to ascend above the icing zone. If this had not happened, Michael could have opened a valve to dump 1,500 lbs/~225 gallons of fuel...but this probably would have required a return to Rothera.

One of the details of the flights to/from Pole that was revealed later by the flight crew, is that they got caught up in singing the song "In the jungle...the lion sleeps tonight" despite not knowing all of the words. That tune has been recorded many times since it was written by a South African of Zulu origin in the 1920's (Wikipedia article) was more recently made famous by the Lion King movie.

Meanwhile, preparations at Pole had been underway for awhile, lots of work for everyone on station:

[Robert Schwarz was the only person on station authorized by NSF to share photos
with media during the event; accordingly all of the Pole photos on this page are his.]
preparing the skiway
Including long hours preparing 8000' of skiway...
setting up the flight line
...and setting up the flight line.
Some of the stuff had to be dug out from the "end of the world" storage berm, including a warming hut, generator and electrical building, pump house, and a fuel manifold building. All of which had to be hooked up and tested.
setting up the fuel system
Hooking up the fuel hoses.
testing one of the runway lights
One of the runway lights.

Eleven of those burn barrels were prepared and set out by Max Peters. They were 55-gallon drums cut off to 14" high and filled with a mixture of JP-8 and mogas as well as some pieces of wood. Tests proved that with 15 gallons of the fuel mixture, they would burn for 7 hours. It took about 30 seconds with a MAP-PRO torch to warm the fuel enough so that it would ignite. And they were visible from the aircraft 15 miles away. Back in my 1977 winter there were several dozen Coleman lanterns on shelves in the garage arch, provided for use of an emergency winter was a good thing we didn't need to use them for that purpose, as they didn't burn for very long in winter temperatures. Additionally, there were various red and white LED strobes, including 5 bright headlamps that Robert had ordered from Amazon for use on sailing trips. He set these up inside of insulated boxes heated with bottles of boiling water, and used inflated trash bags for diffusers.

headlamp in a heated insulated box
One of the headlamps in an insulated box.
testing the white strobe
Testing it outside of DA. Here's Robert's video of the test.
snowmobiles in the LO

Other preparations were underway inside the station: to prepare for a potential emergency rescue, fire, or other situation, two snowmobiles were brought inside of the heated LO, along with two Nansen sleds that were loaded with emergency supplies, including sleeping bags, several fire extinguishers, and medical supplies. Needless to say, the snowmobiles would not have been usable if they had been parked outside. Fortunately, this equipment was not called upon during the medevac evolution. And I must say I'm impressed by the handlebars on those Nansen sleds...back in the day (1977) the normal means of propulsion for these sleds

view from the NOAA webcam shortly before the landing
A view of the lit-up skiway from the NOAA webcam about 2 hours before the medevac flight arrival (the time stamp is UTC,
12 hours earlier than Pole time, which was 08:04:55 on 22 June). Note the excellent weather and visibility--the Moon was up,
just past full, and there was not much wind.

Robert Schwarz and Matt Krahn spent many hours on a snowmobile setting out the various strobe lights about an hour before the landing, picking them up afterward, and then setting them out again before takeoff in case the aircraft had to return and land.

on final
At about 0920, the incoming aircraft was sighted. Here it is on final approach.
almost done taxiing
A few minutes later, about 0930. Taxiing...slowing almost to a stop, being guided into position by one of the fuels techs.
bamboo mats for under the skis
Bamboo mats for the skis, to keep them from freezing to the ice.
taxiing so the skis are on the mats
The final bit of taxiing to get the skis on top of the bamboo mats.

[The need for the bamboo mats was learned during the April 2001 medevac. Due to the temperature (-95ºF/-70ºC), "extreme measures" were required to break the landing gear free (screen grab from Steffen Richter's video).]

The temperature when the aircraft landed was -75.6ºF/-59.8ºC.
unloading the aircraft
Unloading the aircraft...baggage, medical supplies, and FRESHIES!
closing the aircraft up for the night
Finishing unloading...covering up and insulating the aircraft.

Securing the aircraft took about half an hour. This included closing things up and setting up some heaters to keep the electronics and engines somewhat warm. After that, the flight crew headed into the station for a welcomed dinner of bison steak (extras from the midwinter dinner), well prepared by head chef Darby Butts and the rest of the galley crew. The flight crew then headed off to bed...using oxygen concentrators as Twin Otter crews normally do during their RON at Pole. Meanwhile, the Polies were enjoying the freshies from Rothera--boxes of apples, oranges, and tangerines, as well as sweets--tarts and biscuits (well, English biscuits aka cookies or brownies perhaps) and 900g of homemade Antarctic sea salt for Darby to do things with.

Eight hours after the landing, preparations began for the northbound flight.

warming the engines
Applying more serious heat to the aircraft engines.
loading cargo and baggage
Loading up baggage and cargo.

The main flight crew met the medevac patients in one of the main hallways, shortly before the crew headed out to get the aircraft lately. Pilot Wally Dobchuck explained to them what would be happening--the patients would be on stretchers with limited headroom--meanwhile, the 2 55-gallon drums of extra fuel had been removed from the aircraft to compensate for the weight of the patients, medical supplies, and the one bag that the passengers could take with them.

getting the patients on board
Getting the patients on board.
final goodbyes
The patients are aboard...time for final goodbyes.
manager Craig Knott and physician Hamish Wright
Two of the 48 Polie heroes...winter site manager Craig Knott (left) and physician Hamish Wright.
engines started
Eventually, everything was loaded, doors closed, heaters and lights removed, preflight check completed, and engines started.
starting to taxi
And then...the aircraft started moving.
takeoff from Pole
The heavily overloaded aircraft would need every bit of the cleared skiway to take seen here, with the Moon in the background.

The Twin Otter departed Pole at about 1945 22 June and headed to Rothera, as described in this Washington Post article which was updated on 22 June EDT. The flight was uneventful ("all downhill" as it were), perhaps my only concern while reading the accounts was that Darby Butts and the rest of the Pole galley crew had provided the flight team with some very spicy Thai soup. It was greatly appreciated by the entire flight crew. Fortunately there was no need for an emergency Antarctic landing to deal with any unanticipated side effects of the soup (!) although this had been one of my worries at the time.

flight from Pole approaching Rothera

Back at Rothera, four to five hours prior to the arrival of the flight from Pole, the second flight crew was preparing their aircraft for the trip to PA...including switching it back from skis to they had installed skis lest they might have to head south for a SAR mission. The flight from Pole landed at Rothera at about 0515 23 June SP time/1315 22 June Rothera time (left), (NSF press release), after which the two patients were transported to the base dispensary while the two aircrews exchanged information. (The photo is from BAS by Joe Bolton--source and BAS press release).

medic Thai Verzone at Rothera

At right is medic Thai Verzone in front of the vehicle (a Tucker Terra Model 1600 Sno-Cat) used to transport the patients between the airstrip and the dispensary while the aircrews were preparing for the flight to PA. The patients were ambulatory. (Photo source, this Alaska Dispatch News article/ interview.) Kenn Borek brought two medics on this venture, but Thai was the one who went to Pole, and he continued with the other flight crew to PA with the patients. He's from Anchorage and has been around the program for awhile...he's worked for USAP as a mountaineer and medic supporting science field parties. (Interestingly, Thai finished second in the Ob Hill Uphill race on 31 December 2000, with a time of 4:43. That stat is from the 7 January 2001 Antarctic Sun; that race started from the road to the old nuclear/water plant site.)

two KBA Twin Otters on the Rothera runwayAt left, the two aircraft on the Rothera runway...the one with wheels would shortly take the patients to Punta Arenas. About a month after the medevac, I met up with friend Michael Powell, who had been the BAS base commander for Rothera in 2001 when Ron Shemenski had been medevaced. He said that it was fairly easy to add (or remove) snow from the runway as needed to facilitate landings with skis or wheels...and that there also was a second snow runway behind the base that could be used for ski aircraft operations. (This BAS photo appeared in various news articles from AP, including this archived story with photos).

After about 90 minutes, things were ready for the flight north and the weather was starting to deteriorate, so pilot James Haffey sent word back to the dispensary to get the patients back to the airstrip so they could depart. They headed north at about 0645 SP time...

ambulances at Punta Arenas airport

...and reached Punta Arenas about 7 hours later--1345 SP time on 23 June, or 2245 22 June PA time (the NSF press release). And the ambulances were waiting. This photo is a screen grab from the Smithsonian video mentioned below.

Punta Arenas hospital sign
Here's the final destination for the patients...the Punta Arenas hospital where they were taken. This 2005 photo is from Pete Allen, who was medevaced here from Palmer Station in October 2005 with appendicitis. (I wintered with Pete at Pole in 2008.) Meanwhile...Wally Dobchuck and his flight crew encountered a blizzard at Rothera and had to wait more than 2 days before being able to fly north with backup medic John Loomis. The two aircraft and crews made it back to Calgary on 30 June. As for the patients, privacy has been maintained, although I know that one of them has recovered completely.

After everyone had returned home, more stories and videos started to emerge. One of the best sources is CTV this 5 July 2016 story they present nine videos featuring interviews of the flight crews.

the flight crew that went to Pole
Here's the Pole flight crew as they were being interviewed in the KBA hangar after their return to Calgary. From left: aircraft maintenance engineer Michael McCrae, copilot Sébastien Trudel, and chief pilot Wallace (Wally) Dobchuck. This is another screen grab from that Smithsonian video mentioned below.

Dr. Hamish Wright, the 2016 wo physician from New Zealand, was praised by outgoing President Barack Obama for his contribution to the medical evacuation, per this 21 January New Zealand report from Newshub.

The Kenn Borek aircrews received two additional prestigious national awards in March of 2017. The first was the Aviation Week and Space Technology Laureate for Heroism, presented on 2 March (Aviation Week article and associated video from NSF. The second of these was the 2017 Trophy of Current Achievement, presented by the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum--the eight crew members were presented with the award on 29 March at a black tie dinner in Washington DC...per this NSF press release, this CBC News account with video, and this extended video from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The honorees included the Pole flight crew and medic pictured above, backup medic John Loomis, and the flight crew that flew the patients from Rothera to PA--pilot Jim Heffey, copilot Lindsay Owen, and aircraft maintenance engineer Gerald Cirtwill.

Some winterover Polie blog posts and websites about the medevac--with more photos and video:

Alex Teixeira, maintenance/project foreman...

Lindsey Clark, materials person...

Hannah McAllister, materials person....4 posts: Thoughts on Medevac (23 June); Bartering (24 June); Medevac Process (24 June); and Mission Complete (29 June)...

...and of course Robert Schwarz. This is his 2016 winter page with photo links, scroll down for more info!

Other references I should mention (and refer you to for more info):

This National Geographic article which mainly describes the flight from Rothera to Pole.

An account by aurora research tech Tim Ager in the Antarctic Sun "Around the Continent" archive (scroll almost halfway down the page to the 11 July 2016 medevac account).

A 15 June article from, published just after NSF announced the medevac.

My coverage of earlier medical issues/medevacs:

About Renée Nicole Douceur, August-October 2011.

The September 2003 medevac of Barry McCue.

The April 2001 medevac of Ron Shemenski.

Jerri Nielsen's departure from Pole in October 1999 as well as the June 1999 airdrop in support of her condition.