Rescue at the Bottom of the Earth

An unforgiving environment didn’t stop a Canadian flight crew from doing their job at the South Pole.

Wallace Dobchuk
Wallace Dobchuk flies Twin Otters for Kenn Borek Air, a Canadian charter airline that specializes in flying in extreme weather conditions to remote areas of the Arctic and Antarctica.

The chief pilot for Kenn Borek Air in Calgary, Canada, Wallace Dobchuk flew a Twin Otter on a risky medical evacuation flight last June. Dobchuk and his flight crew made a 20-hour round-trip flight between Antarctica’s Rothera Research Station and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station to rescue two sick Lockheed Martin contractors working in support of the National Science Foundation. The National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., awarded the entire Kenn Borek flight crew the 2017 trophy award for current achievement in aerospace. Air & Space senior associate editor Diane Tedeschi spoke with Dobchuk in February.

Air & Space: Was this your first flight into Antarctica?

Dobchuk: No, definitely not. I’ve spent maybe four or five summer seasons down there.

Was this your first flight to Antarctica during the forbidden months of February to October, part of which coincides with the southern hemisphere’s winter?

Yeah, this was the first time for me.

Why do flights to Antarctica during the winter make news?

I think just on the remoteness. There’s really no help around. All the aviation services have left town. They’re gone, and if something happened [and a rescue was required], you’re down there by yourself.

How did you get assigned to the flight? Did you volunteer?

I had a pretty big say in who was going, with my management role here as the chief pilot. So I got to volunteer myself!

What is more of an issue for winter flights to the South Pole: the cold temperatures or the lack of daylight?

In my opinion, the problems are going to arise from the cold temps. That’d be the root cause of a lot of things. You just don’t know what’s going to break down or what’s going to fail.

The night is night. Everybody’s familiar with flying at night. It is what it is, whether it’s back home here or down there. We use the same safety precautions and the same measures. I guess in Antarctica if we did have a problem due to the cold, and then we’ve got to make something happen, that’s where the dark is sort of a secondary issue—if we did have to make a landing open-field.

You would see moonlight or starlight in Antarctica just as you would see it anywhere else?

Exactly. There was a big full moon. To tell you the truth, it didn’t really illuminate the ground. We looked at it on the horizon the whole time. But the only light it sort of did give us on the ground were these areas of blue ice, where the winds had sublimated the snow into basically solid blue ice. You would get a reflection [of moonlight] off of that. Oh hey, there’s some blue ice. I betcha I could land on that [in case of emergency].

On the flight from Rothera to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, did you see towns, lights, or any signs of civilization?

There was nothing after about three minutes into the flight. It was all black the whole way.

Did the lack of civilization make you anxious?

Your mind is always busy doing something. Thinking about fuel calculations. Hoping the wind doesn’t change. Because of the darkness, we had, say, five spots [for an emergency landing] that myself and the other crew members had discussed prior to leaving. Hey, if something goes wrong in the first two hours, it should be no problem making it back to Rothera. Maybe between the two-hour and four-hour mark, we’re going to divert to this place. We picked a few spots that we knew the snow was going to be great to make a blind landing into. Or there was possibly good snow and a small old shelter that might still be up. Something to get us out of the elements if we were in that kind of situation.

On the trip from Rothera to Amundsen, did things go smoothly?

There was nothing out of the ordinary. It went exactly as we had anticipated and planned. The only excitement was that first five minutes in departing out of Rothera. It was quite windy that morning. And Rothera’s kind of a mountainous valley, and when the winds blow like that, you’re definitely getting mountain waves. There was some bad turbulence. And a little bit of light icing in the clouds. So all the excitement or stress was done in the first five minutes.

Were you hand flying the whole way? Or on autopilot?

Most of the cruise flying was done with the autopilot on.

When you got to Amundsen, could you see any lights from the research station buildings? Or runway lights?

Fifteen nautical miles out, we finally saw the glow of the place. We knew some of the buildings would have outdoor lights on, just for people working. We had already pre-determined how the skiway was going to be lit up. In the summertime, they groom a nice long skiway. It’s 10,000 feet long—marked out with flags. But in this case, we said 6–7,000 feet would be great for us—if they could make a small flattened area in the normal skiway. We determined that lighting would be done with barrels, which had a fire burning in them. I think they spaced the barrels about a thousand feet apart.

Were you able to sleep that night at Amundsen?

Your thoughts are always racing, and you’re trying not to think about too much because you do need a little bit of rest. But probably everyone has trouble sleeping. If anybody says they didn’t, they would be telling a bit of a tale. Human nature is what it is, and you can’t help but think about what you’re going to be doing the next morning.

What is your opinion of the de Havilland Twin Otter? Is it the best aircraft for this type of mission?

I’d say, yeah, definitely, just due to the simplicity of it. It doesn’t have a lot of parts that are going to be failing in the cold. We have a hydraulic system, but we could land flapless. So if it didn’t work or we had a leak in it, we could still land. We can steer with differential power. Other than that, there’s no [landing] gear to go up and down. There are not a lot of things that are moving and going to be affected by the cold. So it does work well for these kind of jobs

How did you get into this line of work?

There’s a sucker born every day, I guess [laughs]. I guess when you’re young, it’s fun. At the end of the day, I love going. I’ll go do anything—any flying. You’re out there—making decisions you know weren’t the same as the day before. It’s been the excitement and fun of the oddball flying that’s kept me in it. I mean everybody has that opportunity—you get to that point of your career, and it’s like, Well, do I take to the left and get in line and be another little fish in a big pond at the airlines? Or do you continue on this path of flying, and make that your career?

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This story is a selection from the April/May issue of Air & Space magazine