Canadians pulled off daring 2001 South Pole rescue
In 2001 Canadians aviators were called upon to pull off a dramatic rescue at the South Pole. A risky mission undertaken by a crew and plane from Calgary’s Kenn Borek Air.
It’s a land of either perpetual darkness or constant daylight. Fourteen million square kilometres of ice and snow - about one and a half times the size of Canada. Antarctica is truly the last great wilderness.
During the Antarctic summer at the Amundsen-Scott Research Center, scientists visit this remote corner of the world to collect data about the ozone layer and global warming.
But in the winter, everything shuts down. Six months of darkness engulfs the South Pole. Temperatures are so low that no life form can survive, except under a domed bunker built for a handful of scientists who continue their research.
Completely isolated from the rest of the world, the South Pole in winter is like living on the moon. After the last plane, usually in March, no one can leave and no one arrives, except just one remarkable time.
In the midst of winter’s isolation in 2001, the station’s medical doctor, Dr. Ron Shemenski developed pancreatitis and needed emergency surgery. At a hospital, in the outside world simple day surgery would cure him, but at the South Pole, nothing is simple. Shemenski needed to be evacuated – immediately.
But Shemenski was initially not too keen on having to leave the station.
“What was pointed out to me, I had the right to take my own chances, but I did not have the right to take the chance and leave 49 people without a doctor down there for the winter… I’m the only physician and there’s nobody to back me up. And that was the decision to take me out. I didn’t agree with it, but that was the decision,” said Shemenski.
So the South Pole base manager and support staff back in Denver developed an extraordinary plan. For the first time in history, they would send a plane to the bottom of the world in total darkness, to rescue the doctor and bring in a replacement. The temperatures at that time of year were cold enough to snap a piece of metal like a twig. The call first went out to the U.S. Air Force and its Air National Guard wing.
Fifty American military personnel were enlisted. Three LC-130 Hercules cargo planes were put on stand by and moved into position at Christchurch, New Zealand, to airlift the doctor back to the States. But the South Pole was too cold for the Hercules. Even if they landed, they’d never get back off the ground. The U.S. Air Force soon called off the mission.
But Raytheon, the American corporation that co-ordinates supplies for the South Pole, wasn’t giving up. If the U.S. Air Force wasn’t up to the job, they believed the Canadians would be.
It would be up to three young men in one small Canadian bush plane.
Sean Loutitt, Mark Cary and Norm Wong were about to embark on the flight of their lives on the legendary Twin Otter. It was designed by Canada’s deHavilland Aircraft in the 1960s, specifically for the Canadian north. The Twin Otter played a crucial role in opening the remote regions of Canada. Forty years later, it’s still the workhorse of the north. (The plane also ferries tens of thousands of passengers a year on commuter flights between Vancouver and Victoria.)
Sean Loutitt would lead the mission to the South Pole. Loutitt was the chief pilot for Kenn Borek Air in Calgary. For more than two decades the pilots of Kenn Borek Air and their Twin Otters have been criss-crossing the Antarctic.
As a seasoned bush pilot, raised in Canada’s Arctic, Loutitt is familiar with flying in extreme conditions. He also knew the Antarctic weather and understood the risks. Loutitt would leave nothing to chance.
“I don’t want to risk my life. I’m not going on a suicide mission...You start thinking about some of the possibilities that could happen and you want to make sure you plan for all the contingencies involved,” said Loutitt.
Two Twin Otters would leave from Calgary. One plane would fly into the South Pole. The second plane would act as a back up, in case of an emergency.
At the South Pole, the staff would have 10 days to prepare for the Twin Otter. Their first challenge – dig out a two-kilometre landing strip.
The small plane landing would be landing blind, in blowing snow and life robbing cold – at the bottom of the world. The runway was over two kilometers from base camp. The tractors had never operated before at temperatures this low. They were afraid the tracks would snap. At the South Pole, they were getting ready for the unbelievable.
The simplest task took considerable time and effort and planning. It was like working in outer space. Even the simplest task – like lighting the runway – required ingenuity.
“We had to light a runway with 55 gallon drums filled with wood and gas. Gasoline won’t burn at those temperatures. We poured gasoline on the wood and it wouldn’t burn, it just turns to crystals and the only way we could get the gasoline to burn was to use a propane torch to heat it up to the point where it starts to burn,” said Shemenski.
The two fully loaded Twin Otters made the five-day flight from Calgary to Punta Arenas, Chile. From there, they lifted off and headed to the British research station, Rothera on the Antarctic Peninsula. From Rothera, they would make the 10-hour journey south, across the continent to the South Pole, to save Dr. Shemenski.
Using the most sophisticated weather forecasting equipment in the world, they waited for a 36-hour window of good weather. Enough time to get to the South Pole, rest then fly back out.
There were two planes, two crews. One would go to the Pole; the other would wait at Rothera. It would be the search and rescue plane if the first one went down. It had been decided that Loutitt and Cary would be the pilots going to the pole. They then flipped a coin to decide which of the two mechanics would join them.
After three days in Rothera, there was a break in the weather. And so began the ten-hour flight into the unknown. Approximately half-way they would reach the point of no return – where they would no choice but to fly to the Pole.
Four hours into the flight, the weather took a turn for the worse but the crew carried on with their mission instead of turning back. The Twin Otter made a perfect landing. An incredible journey across a dark, empty continent – guided in by a dozen burning barrels.
“To finally see what you’re looking for and to be able to identify, that was an extremely special moment… It was very poetic actually to arrive at the bottom of the world, in a land that’s covered in ice and snow, to these glowing barrels of burning debris,” said Cary.
But the journey was only half over – and the most difficult part was yet to come.
They had begun a new chapter in aviation history – now if they could get off the ground the chapter would be complete.
But when they started up the engines to leave, there was trouble. The flaps were frozen in the fully extended position. If they couldn’t be fixed, the plane would never get the speed it needed for flight. If the problem wasn’t fixed – they would spend the next 6 months at the South Pole. It would be up to engineer Norm Wong to fix the plane.
“You get a heightened awareness. Time seems to slow done and you just focus on the problem and what you need to – accomplish what the goal is to get the aircraft running and operating again,” said Wong.
When the going gets rough, bush pilots are notorious for throwing out the rule book. They call it bush maintenance. They jerry-rigged the controls, not part of aviation rules, but they’re not exactly written for winter at the South Pole.
It was one of the slowest, longest, take-offs in Twin Otter history. But they were in the air. They hoped they were going in the right direction, but the instruments couldn’t be trusted in this cold, remote corner of the world. Later they received a sign.
“All of a sudden, there was this faint pink line on the horizon. It was really beautiful to watch it grow. It was like a gift and a sign to say everything’s going to work out and you guys are going the right way,” said Cary.
The rescue was over. But as they arrived in Punta Arena, Chile, they were met by scores of reporters – the eyes of the world were turned upon the Canadian crew and the reclusive Dr. Shemenski. It may have been the only time the crew of the Twin Otter were truly scared.
By the time they landed back in Calgary the media interest had reached a fevered pitch. Two Canadian pilots and one Canadian engineer had conquered the coldest place in the world. It would change the South Pole and perhaps Canada forever.
At Rideau Hall, the residence of the Governor General, the Twin Otter crew received their country’s honour for bravery.
They had made history, saved a life, and changed forever the isolation at the bottom of the world.