Two airplanes tasked with rescuing a sick American contractor at the South Pole reached the continent on Monday, officials said, and must now wait for the weather to cooperate before they can transport the research contractor to a medical facility. The patient's identity was not revealed and news reports said a second patient may also need to be evacuated. File Photo by Ben Holt Sr./NASA/UPI | License Photo
BAHIA THETIS, Argentina, June 21 (UPI) -- A medical evacuation is underway at the South Pole for a research contractor who suddenly fell ill at the U.S. outpost on the world's southernmost continent.
Officials said a medical rescue team arrived at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station on Monday. Emergency personnel next planned to evaluate the scientist's condition and chart a path to a medical facility, officials said.
However, any return trip is reliant on cooperation from the weather, meaning the rescue team and the sick contractor could remain in Antarctica for several hours.
A spokesman for the National Science Foundation, which employs the ill researcher, said two rescue planes arrived at Britain's Rothera Station on Tuesday. The patient is employed by Lockheed Martin's Antarctic Support Contract, officials said.
The mission, though, is also fraught with dangerous risks. Flying to Antarctica in the middle of the summer can be treacherous because the continent is deep in its own winter and there is no natural daylight there this time of year.
"The big concern of course is that you don't have enough fuel to actually go to the South Pole, turn around and come back," pilot Sean Loutit, who has flown to the South Pole previously, said.
The rescue planes departed Canada a week ago and flew to the South Pole via South America. Only twice before has such an evacuation occurred at the U.S. outpost, in 2001 and 2003.
Although officials didn't specify what was wrong with the contractor, the risks involved with such a rescue indicate a need for urgent medical care.
"After comprehensive consultation with outside medical professionals, agency officials previously decided that a medical situation at Amundsen-Scott warrants returning one member of the station's winter crew to a hospital that can provide a level of medical care that is unavailable at the station," the NSF said in a statement.
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"Because of the complexity of the operation, the evacuation will require contributions from multiple entities involved in the U.S. Antarctic Program including weather forecasts from the U.S. Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems (SPAWAR) Center Atlantic; expertise from the University of Texas Medical Branch; and various contributions from ASC, NSF's Colorado-based Antarctic logistics contractor as well as assistance from other nations," the NSF said last week.
News reports said Tuesday that a second patient might also be in need of medical treatment.
Now emergency personnel must wait for a window of good weather to return. One of the planes will stay at the South Pole to provide search and rescue capabilities while the other aircraft transports the patient.
Nearly 50 people are stationed at Amundsen-Scott at any given time of year to research the atmosphere and astronomy.