Image: N.Z. airlift
In this photo provided by the New Zealand Defence Force, a Royal New Zealand Air Force Orion aircraft gets set for takeoff from Antarctica's McMurdo Station for New Zealand on Tuesday, evacuating an American worker in serious medical condition.
updated 9/14/2010 10:47:31 AM ET 2010-09-14T14:47:31

A New Zealand air force plane made a rare wintertime landing on an ice runway in Antarctica on a mercy mission Tuesday to evacuate an American worker in serious medical condition, officials said.

Blizzard conditions eased to allow the Orion aircraft with three medical staff aboard to land at the U.S. McMurdo Station science base on the north Antarctic coast before refueling and returning on a seven-hour flight back to New Zealand. The patient was taken to a Christchurch Hospital after landing, Air force spokesman Squadron Leader Kavae Tamariki said.

An initial rescue bid on Sunday was forced to turn back because of blizzards. Temperatures at the base have been about 32 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (-35 degrees Celsius) in recent days.

Tamariki said earlier that the plane landed at around midday Tuesday during a brief period of daylight and clear weather, and spent about an hour and a half on the ground before taking off with the patient.

"It's going fine so far," Tamariki told The Associated Press. He said the patient was stable.

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The man's identity, exact condition and occupation have not been disclosed. He works for Raytheon, the U.S. company that provides support services — such as supplies, transportation, accommodation — for the U.S. National Science Foundation at McMurdo.

"The medical advice is to get him out of there as soon as possible for hospital care," Raytheon Polar Services New Zealand operations manager, Kerry Chuck, told the AP earlier.

The United States has more than 500 staff that spend the bleak winter — from March through October — at McMurdo each year. Flights are usually only made during the summer months, when most scientists are ferried in and out of the station. Icebreaker ships are used to bring in fuel.

A few winter evacuations of sick workers have been undertaken from Antarctica, including a dramatic midwinter flight in 1999, when fuel barrels were set ablaze to light the runway, to pick up a female American doctor at a South Pole station who contracted breast cancer.

Last September, an air force airplane evacuated an American working at McMurdo Station who was in serious but stable condition due to cardiac problems.

A broad range of scientific research is conducted at the station, including the Antarctic sea and its marine life, the annual fight for survival of the world's largest penguin colonies, and the depletion of the ozone layer.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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