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Countdown to Survival

Air National Guard Rescues Doctor

Updated: 10/15/99:

A U.S. military plane took off safely from the South Pole on Saturday (local time), rescuing an American doctor who has been stranded there for five months with a lump in her breast. The plane, an LC-130 Hercules from the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing, left the Antarctic coast and took roughly three hours to reach the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station, a dome in the polar snow and ice that houses 41 researchers from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The mission was finally launched after days of frustration caused by unpredictable polar weather. The type of plane involved becomes difficult to handle in extremely low temperatures as hydraulic systems operate sluggishly below minus 58 degrees.

Two Hercules planes had to wait for an extra day after arriving in southern New Zealand this week before flying to the Antarctic coast. Then, they were forced to postpone planned rescue attempts on Thursday and Friday after temperatures plunged as low as minus 76 degrees.

``Visibility was not as high as we would like, but we landed,'' U.S Air Force spokesman Victor Hines said from Christchurch, New Zealand.

After the plane landed safely on a runway carved out of ice , Dr. Jerri Nielsen, 47, was helped aboard and a replacement doctor was left behind before the plane took off again.

``The passenger exchange took just 22 minutes,'' Hines said.

Updated 10/14/99:

Help is just around the corner, a mere 841 miles away for an American doctor stranded by arctic winter in the far reaches of the South Pole. Dr. Jerri Nielsen, the Station Physician at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station first discovered a lump in her breasts in June. As June is the middle of the arctic winter at the South Pole, evacuation has not yet, to date, been possible. In July, braving temperatures well below the safe operating range of their aircraft, United States Air National Guard crews air-dropped critically needed medical supplies and equipment during a ferocious snow storm. Reportably, Dr. Nielsen has used these supplies to give herself chemotherapy treatments during the long wait to the start of arctic summer when she can be safely evacuated.

That time may now be here. At Dr. Nielsen's own physician's request, the New York National Guard is going to attempt to try and get her out. On October 5th, two ski-equipped LC-130H Cargo Aircraft, assigned to the 109th AW of the New York National Guard began a five day trip one-half way around the World to Christchurch, New Zealand to prepare for a dangerous mission. As surface temperatures kept inching slowly upwards toward the critical 58 degrees below zero, the two rescue aircraft completed the last few miles of their 18,000 mile journey from New York to rest on the outskirts of Antartica at McMurdo base on the freezing coast.

And now, the waiting starts....day by day by day.

Official Air Force Photo

The LC-130H Military Cargo Aircraft, flown by the 109 Air Wing National Guard Unit in New York is a specially designed cargo aircraft equipped with skis to land on hard-packed ice and snow.

The temperature at Amundsen-Scott must edge above minus 58 degrees before the Hercules can safely land and take off there. During the operation, one of the planes will remain at McMurdo as a backup. During the first window of opportunity after arrival, the temperature dipped to minus 69 degrees, forcing a decision of "no-go." The crew will try again tomorrow..

``Aircraft really do not operate well'' in extremely low temperatures, Air National Guard spokesman Victor Heinz said. ``Strange things start happening to them at a certain temperature.''

At temperatures below minus 58, ``the hydraulics tend to get very sluggish ... and hydraulics are critical to operate flaps, landing gear, all the things you need to land the aircraft,'' Heinz said.

As well as the aircrew, the evacuation aircraft will carry a doctor, nurse and the commander of the 109th Airlift Wing, Colonel Graham Pritchard.
"The negative 50 degrees is a very firm guideline but if there is a judgment call to be made on whether negative 51 is okay, or negative 52, it is going to be his (Colonel Pritchard's) call to make that decision," -- Captain Victor Hines, U.S. Air Force spokesman

As senior mission commander, he would decide whether the aircraft took off from McMurdo and whether it was safe to land at the pole, said U.S. Air Force spokesman Captain Victor Hines.

As a rule, the U.S. Air Force avoids operating aircraft at temperatures colder than minus 50 degrees Celsius (minus 58 Fahrenheit).

When temperatures allow, one plane, with skis for landing gear, will fly to the pole to pick up Nielsen -- the base's only doctor -- in an operation which must be executed at high speed to prevent the freezing temperatures from crippling the plane.

The dome of Amundsen-Scott is a 50 meter diameter geodesic dome structure made of metal. This provides shelter for a number of smaller buildings inside, including the galley, communications, recreations and the winter over living quarters. The main entrance to the dome is through a tunnel large enough to drive a van into. To either side, other arched tunnels lead of the main entrance tunnel and house medical, garage and power generation facilities.

Amundsen-Scott Antarctic Research Center

Official U.S. Government Photo

The Hercules will land on a runway carved out of polar ice, pick up Nielsen, drop off a replacement doctor and fly out again -- all within 20 minutes and without turning off the plane's four propellers, Heinz said.

Once Nielsen, of Youngstown, Ohio, is aboard the plane, she will be cared for by a medivac doctor and nurse while being flown to McMurdo on the Antarctic coast. In addition to the crew and a medical team, the plane carries a replacement physician for the Station.

The U.S.-based National Science Foundation, which runs the Amundsen-Scott station, is refusing to disclose details of Nielsen's condition and said it would release no information about her movements after she leaves McMurdo. Nielsen is expected to be flown to the United States for treatment.

The 41 researchers at the station work on projects involving everything from weather to ozone.

Related Links:

Breast Cancer - From About.com's Guide to Women's Health.

Breast Cancer : Susceptibility and Risk - From About.com's Guide to Cancer

Questions and Answers - Breast Cancer Prevention Trial - From About.com's Guide to Pharmacology

New York ANG Home Page

Air National Guard Home Page

Antarctic Ecology and Wildlife - From About.com's Guide to the Environment

A Year at the South Pole

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