February 1, 2005
Someone had to fly down to Antarctica, in the winter down there, and rescue an American member of the research team based at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station — as far south as you can possibly go. Chief pilot Sean Loutitt, copilot Brian Crocker, and flight engineer Kevin Riehl of Kenn Borek Air Ltd., of Calgary, British Columbia, fueled and loaded the company's de Havilland Twin Otter and took off heading south.
The 36-year-old Loutitt earned his pilot certificate in a Cessna 172 in British Columbia in 1988. "I flew into all kinds of unprepared strips and frozen lakes, so essentially it was bush flying," he says. When Kenn Borek Air bought a DC-3 in 1994 it hired Loutitt. The company, experienced in flying in haphazard conditions in remote locations all around the globe, has contracts with the National Science Foundation. Much of the work consists of flying equipment, fuel, and personnel to and from McMurdo Station on the coast to the South Pole Station.
This was Loutitt's second Antarctic winter rescue trip. In April 2001 the station's doctor came down with pancreatitis. With copilot Mark Carey and flight engineer Norm Wong, Loutitt flew down to the dark pole, picked up the doctor, and took him back to a hospital in Chile.
Flying there in the austral summer — December to February — is a breeze. The sun shines 24 hours a day, and the temperature reaches a balmy minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit. It's always windy — it's the South Pole. From March to November the temperature drops to minus 140 degrees F, which turns fuel to jelly. The winds can blow snow at hurricane speeds of more than 110 mph. The landing strip is marked with flaming oil drums.
The Twin Otter was crammed with fuel and, including its internal ferry tanks, had a 12- to 13-hour range. The 1,350-nautical mile trip had strong headwinds. There's not a great margin of error if you can't break through to the runway and have to divert — there's no other place to divert.
Loutitt spotted the flaming drums and set down on the strip of pounded-down snow. Twelve hours later and with the tanks once again topped off they loaded the sick passenger and took up a heading toward the Western Hemisphere. They arrived on the northern tip of Antarctica eight hours after departure, and after another overnight in Antarctica they made it across the Atlantic to Chile, where their passenger checked into a hospital for surgery.
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