It was one of the most dangerous missions of their careers — a midwinter flight to the bottom of Earth to rescue two sick workers from the South Pole research station.
An entire continent sprawled below them, empty and unknowable in the midst of the six-month Antarctic night. The only light came from the pale moon and the faint flicker of instruments on their tiny plane. The only sound came from the hum of the engine and the whine of the wind.
That’s when one of Sebastien Trudel’s crewmates began to sing.
“In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.”
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Another voice joined him: “A-wimoweh, a-wimoweh, a-wimoweh.”
“At that point, we were all just singing,” Trudel recalled, laughing.
They faltered when they got to the third line — no one could remember the words, so they just kept repeating the first two phases. But the song did its job.
“That was a pretty good moment, just to be able to relax,” Trudel said.
But they relaxed only for a moment, Trudel said, “then we went back to work.”
They were just the third team in history to fly to the South Pole during the southern winter. Ordinarily there is no traffic in or out of the National Science Foundation’s Amundsen-Scott research station between March, when the sun sets on the pole for six months, and October, when it finally returns.
A mission like this one is mobilized only in the most dire of circumstances. Given how hostile Antarctica is, no one can count on a successful landing, let alone a successful return.
But this story does have a happy ending: On June 23, after soaring through darkness and skirting storms, the team from Canadian airline Kenn Borek safely delivered two patients to a clinic in Punta Arenas, Chile, where they could get medical treatment not available at the pole.
Speaking to reporters for the first time Tuesday, the diffident pilots insisted that the mission was no big deal.
“It really is just kind of what we do,” said chief pilot Wally Dobchuk. “It just came down to, you know, I guess planning it. … We didn’t get caught off guard. We weren’t worried about anything. We weren’t scared.”
They had the advantage of skill (the six team members had roughly 50 years of Antarctic flying experience among them) and good weather (the plane soared onto the continent right after a brutal blizzard and managed to slip back out just before another storm arrived).
But Dobchuk didn’t know that would be the case a month ago, when a woman stood up at his annual meeting with the National Science Foundation to discuss service for the station and announced there had been “a small change to the agenda.”
She said, “Can you guys go to Antarctica, and how fast can you get there?” Dobchuk recalled at a news conference Tuesday.
Dobchuk is the chief pilot for Kenn Borek Air, a Calgary-based firm that provides flights to the coldest and hardest-to-reach corners of Earth. The airline carried out the previous two efforts to make polar rescues in the middle of winter, in 2001 and 2003. And now they were being asked to do it again.
Dobchuk quickly got to work, calling in crew members from various jobs around the Arctic. Two planes would head south — one to fly to the pole, the other to stay behind on the Antarctic coast in case a search-and-rescue mission was necessary. So he needed six people — two pilots and an engineer for each plane, including Dobchuk himself.
“It all happened pretty quick,” said Lindsay Owen, the first officer for the backup plane. “I wasn’t really asked, I wasn’t really told, it was just happening.”
Dobchuk, Owen and the rest of the team would be flying tiny, rugged twin turboprops called Twin Otters, the only aircraft capable of withstanding winter conditions at the pole. Temperatures there are so low that complex machinery breaks down and fuel freezes into an unusable jelly. A plane has to be energy efficient and low maintenance to stay aloft.
Colleagues flew the Twin Otters from Canada to Punta Arenas, Chile, allowing the six crew members to take a commercial flight and arrive well rested. When they landed in Chile on June 17, they found that the Drake Passage — which separates the southernmost tip of South America from the northernmost part of Antarctica — was choked by vicious storms. They had to wait two days for the weather to clear.
A blizzard would bookend the last leg of the mission as well.
“It was blizzard or nice,” Dobchuk recalled. “There was no in between.”
The Twin Otters soared into Rothera Research Station, a British base on the coast, on the afternoon of June 20. The base is within the Antarctic circle, so sunlight is scarce in the winter months. But sitting roughly 1,500 miles north of the pole, Rothera does see a sliver of sun creep just over the horizon.
“It’s gorgeous this time of year,” said Trudel. “There’s open water with icebergs floating in it, huge mountains around with glaciers flowing down like an icy river. I love that place.
“But you can’t take it for granted,” he added, his tone stern. “Because it can get you in real trouble if you don’t respect it.”
The crews landed their planes at Rothera and rested. They had two very long days ahead of them.
Early on the morning of the 21st — the winter solstice — Dobchuk, Trudel and aircraft maintenance engineer Mike McCrae trudged out to their plane along with a medic and readied for takeoff. The runway at Rothera is short, and except for a meager light pointed at the ice by the staff at Rothera, the team had no way of seeing where they were headed.
But the Twin Otter’s wings caught the air beneath them, and with one well-executed turn, they were headed back toward the middle of the continent, en route to the most isolated spot on Earth.
Back at Rothera, Owen and her colleagues kept an eye on the radar and waited for word that the plane had arrived at its destination.
“We were the only two aircraft down there,” said Jim Haffey, the chief pilot for the backup plane. “If they had a problem, we would have to look after them, and vice versa. It makes you think a little more.”
Think about what?
Haffey paused, searching for words to describe that utter isolation.
“Just about your situational awareness, the ‘what ifs?’ you know? If you have to divert, if you had to land somewhere — there’s always that, and the cold, and the darkness, and the risks. … And who else is gonna come and get you if something happens?”
No one had to come up with an answer to that question — this time. Roughly 10 hours after departing Rothera, Trudel saw a feeble glow appear on the formless earth below.
“It was a tiny little dot in that mass of black,” he recalled. “We were kind of trying to figure if it was actually the light of the station and not just some reflection on the windshield, but then it slowly started to get brighter and bigger and at some point we could finally see the lights lined up along the skiway” — the stretch of compacted snow that pole workers had prepared for the Twin Otter to land.
The crew was greeted by enthusiastic South Pole workers, who fed them a hot meal — “a nice buffalo steak,” Dobchuk recalled, grinning — and sent them to off to sleep.
A few hours later, they woke in darkness just as absolute as that in which they went to bed and returned to the Twin Otter with two passengers in tow. The patients seemed cheerful but relieved to be on their way, Trudel said.
The National Science Foundation has not released the names or conditions of the patients for medical privacy reasons, but a nurse at Punta Arenas told The Associated Press that one was a woman with a gastric problem and the other was a man who had suffered a heart attack.
Just like the arrival at the pole, the return to Rothera was heralded by a faint glimmer on the horizon: sunlight cresting over the tops of the mountains surrounding the station.
“It was warming for sure,” Trudel said. “To be that tiny little aircraft flying in the middle of that frozen land that is not very forgiving, and then see the sunlight.”
It was June 22 — the day after the solstice, the beginning of the end of Antarctica’s long night. The patients and the rescue crew were on their way home.