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Harsh weather delays rescue mission to South Pole

October 11, 1999
Web posted at: 8:14 p.m. EDT (0014 GMT)

In this story:

Crew won't stay long

Tricky landing

Mission began last week

'Doc Holiday' no stranger to challenges


CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (CNN) -- Bad weather delayed a flight to the South Pole on Tuesday to rescue a U.S. doctor who discovered a lump in her breast while serving at an Antarctic research station.

Two U.S. Air National Guard Hercules LC-130 cargo planes had been scheduled to fly from New Zealand to McMurdo base on the Northern Coast of Antarctica, but high winds and swirling snow forced the mission to wait at least until Wednesday.

TEST Antarctic rescue mission flight plan

Dr. Jerri Nielsen is the only physician for a crew of 41 researchers at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. She has been treating herself with chemotherapy since mid-July, when drugs and medical equipment were air-dropped during a howling snowstorm.

Her doctors recently recommended that she return to the United States at the earliest opportunity.

Crew won't stay long

The rescue planes, equipped with skis for the perilous landing on snow and ice, arrived Sunday in Christchurch, New Zealand, the gateway to the Antarctic for nations carrying out research projects on the polar ice.

The two planes will remain in Christchurch until visibility permits a 2,000-mile (3,219 km) flight south to the McMurdo station on the Antarctic coast, a trip expected to take at least eight hours.

From there, rescuers will wait for the temperature to rise above minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit (-50 degrees Centigrade) before one of the planes attempts the final leg of the mission -- a further flight of 800 miles (1,287 km) from McMurdo to the South Pole research station.

Once the crew arrives, it won't stay long, said New York Air National Guard Brig. Gen. Archie Berberian.

"They won't shut the engines of the airplane down, just open up the airplane and put the doctor on board the airplane, so I would imagine no more than 30 minutes at the Pole," he told CNN by telephone from Albany, New York.


Asymmetrically centered on the South Pole, Antarctica in winter is the coldest place on the planet. Consisting of two major regions -- East and West -- the continent is joined into a single mass of ice thousands of feet thick. In winter, temperatures can drop to as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 40 degrees Celsius). Antarctica has no native human population and no large animals are native to the continent. Expeditions have been launched into Antarctica for decades, mostly for scientific purposes. The United States and New Zealand maintain scientific bases in Antarctica. The Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959, sought to foster the peaceful use of the southern continent and ensure survival of its fragile environment. The treaty forbids military activity or nuclear testing in the region. There are also strict controls on fishing.

Tricky landing

Timing, he said, would be crucial. "This time of year (there's only) about a four- or five-hour window of opportunity because of daylight and other visibility conditions in Antarctica."

But, even if the weather cooperates, the LC-130 pilots will have their hands full, landing such large planes on icy snow.

"Directional control can be difficult," Berberian said. "There is a lot of friction with the huge skis that are below the airplane." But "the biggest difficulty in a mission like this is visibility and horizon conditions ... because there are no distinguishing land characteristics."

"And the (landing strip) at the South Pole and at McMurdo are not lighted like a normal runway would be with runway lighting," he added.

Mission began last week

The trek to the South Pole started last Wednesday in Schenectady, New York, where the planes from the 109th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard are based.

Two cargo planes made the trip in case one suffers mechanical problems. One of them carried a replacement doctor for the research station and a team of medics to treat Nielsen on the trip back.

From New York, the planes went to Travis Air Force Base, outside Sacramento, California; to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii; to the Pacific island of Pago Pago; and then to Christchurch.

'Doc Holiday' no stranger to challenges

"All the concern, all the help, is unbelievable, just unbelievable," Nielson's mother, Lorine Cahill of Youngstown, Ohio, told CNN. "Maybe she can hang on until they can get her out."

Phil Cahill figured his daughter should be well prepared to treat herself until help arrives.

"They nicknamed her Doc Holiday because she basically performs medicine like they did in those days," he told CNN.

"She doesn't have the fancy equipment that they have here in the hospitals. She has to operate and check broken bones and everything else like they did years ago."

Planes prepare to evacuate South Pole doctor
October 10, 1999
Tough air rescue launched for ailing Arctic doctor
October 7, 1999
Scientists say Antarctic lake worth a look-see
August 13, 1999
Air Force planes make dramatic supply drop in Antarctica
July 11, 1999
Crews prepare for emergency supply drop to South Pole
July 10, 1999

Antarctica's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station
New York Air National Guard
The New South Polar Times
Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica
Travis Air Force Base
Hickam Air Force Base
Virtual tour- McMurdo Station
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