Rare, High-Risk Antarctica Mission Sees Member of U.S. Antarctic Program Evacuated

A member of the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) has been evacuated from the southernmost continent in a high-risk mission after being injured.

Aircrew from the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) left Christchurch at 10:25 p.m. local time on Sunday, flying around seven hours aboard a C-130 Hercules to their destination—an ice runway near the McMurdo research station in Antarctica, which is located around 2,400 miles away.

The 13-member crew, which included medical personnel, had to use night vision goggles to land the aircraft on the ice runway, the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) said in a statement. At this time of year, Antarctica is in the midst of winter and experiences darkness 24 hours a day with the sun never rising.

This is the first time that the RNZAF has flown a medevac mission to Antarctica using this technology, the NZDF said.

The injured individual, who has not been identified, is a member of the USAP who was based at the McMurdo station—the largest community in Antarctica, capable of supporting more than a thousand residents.

The station is operated by the United States Antarctic Program—a government organization that conducts and supports research in the region as a branch of the National Science Foundation.

McMurdo is located on the southern tip of Ross Island, which is located just off mainland Antarctica in an area claimed by New Zealand.

For the medevac mission, ground crew in Antarctica prepared the airfield by making sure the runway was lit and safe for the C-130 Hercules to land. After landing, the RNZAF team picked up the patient, who was not suffering from life-threatening injuries.

Successful medevac yesterday at @NSF McMurdo #Antarctica in the dark of the polar night. The crew used night vision goggles to land the @NZAirForce C-130 Hercules on the ice runway at Phoenix Airfield, Ross Ice Shelf, after the 7hr 3920km flight from #Christchurch; pic Jeff Capps pic.twitter.com/HtZHWMD9t9

— The Antarctic Report (@AntarcticReport) July 12, 2021
The McMurdo research station medevac mission
Aircrew from the Royal New Zealand Air Force successfully evacuated a member of the United States Antarctic Program from the McMurdo research station to Christchurch, New Zealand. New Zealand Defence Force

The Air Force crew then refueled before flying back to Christchurch, the largest city in New Zealand's South Island—where they arrived at 2 p.m. local time on Monday. The patient, who has not been identified, is now receiving further medical treatment in New Zealand. Officials have not disclosed the nature of the individual's injuries.

Air Commodore Shaun Sexton said the NZDF had been providing support to the USAP for several years, but missions like this were uncommon.

"We were pleased to be able to assist our U.S. partners when the call came to help with the medevac," he said in a statement. "The aircrew and supporting New Zealand and U.S. personnel in both Antarctica and in New Zealand did an outstanding job to complete this difficult medevac."

The Air Force team had been trying to reach Antarctica since last Saturday but their efforts were hampered by poor weather, RNZAF Base Auckland Commander Group Captain Andy Scott said.

"Flying to Antarctica is one of the highest risk missions we fly due to the lack of divert airfields and inability to get down and back without refuelling. The crews therefore are highly trained to analyse the situation with regards to the weather and the airfield state before making a decision to proceed," he said in a statement.

"Flying in winter presents even more challenges due to the extreme cold, the rapidly changing weather and little to no visual warnings of the changes you would 'see' in summer."

A spokesperson for the National Science Foundation told Newsweek that the agency could not provide any further details about the individual who was injured.

The spokesperson said: "The National Science Foundation is grateful for the assistance provided by the New Zealand Defence Force during the medical evacuation from McMurdo Station that took place last weekend.

"Antarctica New Zealand, with whom the U.S. Antarctic Program has enjoyed a longstanding partnership, helped coordinate the effort. Flights to Antarctica in the austral winter season are rare, and this rescue ensured that an individual with a serious medical condition was able to acquire medical care not available at McMurdo Station."

This article has been updated to include comments from the National Science Foundation.

McMurdo research station antarctica, getty
The U.S. McMurdo research station in Antarctica is pictured on November 11, 2016. The injured individual was based at the McMurdo station. MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images