Evacuating a pair of sick workers from the South Pole is business as usual for the Kenn Borek Air crew, an airline that specializes in transport to remote polar destinations. The carrier typically stops making runs to Antarctica in mid-March, when the weather turns colder and the winds pick up. 

But the call for this mission came in June, the time of year when the land of ice and snow sees little daylight, the time of year when no aircraft had ever made the journey across the Drake Passage, known for vicious winds and storms, and then into the heart of the South Pole. A pair of Lockheed Martin workers had fallen sick and needed to leave Antarctica.

Kenn Borek Air Capt. Wally Dobchuk is all business in describing the mission. The crew started on a pair of Twin Otter aircraft in Calgary, Alberta. They flew to Denver and then McAllen, Texas. From there, they took a commercial flight to Punta Arenas, Chile, to rest while a backup crew flew the Twin Otters to meet them at the small city along the Strait of Magellan. 

There, they rested a bit more and consulted with officials from the National Science Foundation, watching satellite weather imagery. The crew waited 36 hr. for a blizzard to pass before embarking on an 8-9 hr. flight across the Drake Passage to Rothera Research Station on Antarctica’s Adelaide Island. It would be a difficult flight. The plane was outfitted with a specialty load and carrying about 5,000 lb. more than the normal manufacturing weight.

“What sort of slows us down or stops us is any icing on that routing,” Dobchuk explains. Luckily, the weather cooperated. The crew arrived in twilight, spent 12 hr. in temperatures of about −60C (−76F), reconfigured the aircraft on spring skis and then started another 9.7-hr. journey to Amundsen Scott South Pole Station. 

Again, the crew faced no problem with the weather. But watching the fuel gauge became an obsession for Dobchuk, because there is nowhere to stop along the route. Fluctuations in the speed of the wind can make a big difference in the amount of fuel left for the ride, he explains. But they wound up with more than enough to spare. Dobchuck flew with first officer Sebastian Trudel and maintenance engineer Michael McCrae. 

For Dobchuk the best part of the journey was arriving safely at Rothera Station and handing off the two rescued workers to the next crew, James Haffney, Lindsay Owen and Gerald Cirtwill, with a respectful handshake acknowledging a job well done.

Says Dobchuk: “Our job is just to get there and get there safe.”