By Pauline Askin
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Pilot skill, international cooperation and a lot of luck were to thank for the successful evacuation from a remote Antarctic outpost of a U.S. researcher in apparent need of urgent surgery, an Australian official said on Friday.
The perilous evacuation in the middle of the Antarctic winter, with the continent just emerging from its six-month-long night and temperatures of -35 Celsius (-31 Fahrenheit), was completed on Thursday with the arrival in New Zealand of an A319 Airbus carrying the member of a U.S. government expedition.
"The luck of having a weather window when we needed it was great," said Tony Fleming, director of the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), which overseas Australian research posts. McMurdo station, a year-round research post, is managed by the United States.
"The sun doesn't come over the horizon at this time of the year at McMurdo but there is a couple of hours in the day where there's twilight and sometimes the weather is calm and clear and it was like that yesterday."
Clearing Pegasus, a runway packed with snow on top of ice hundreds of meters thick, was the result of a joint effort by members of research teams from the United States, Australia and New Zealand, who used machinery to dump snow and then level it.
Preparations had begun for the first resupply aircraft due at the end of the month, but the clearing had to be speeded up because of the emergency.
While the AAD makes regular landings at McMurdo during the southern summer, hostile winter weather makes landings precarious and they are usually only carried in an emergency.
"It's a complex operation but the guys down at McMurdo did a great job probably under difficult conditions to prepare that runway for the evacuation flight," Fleming said.
The evacuation was completed in an hour and the flight to Christchurch, New Zealand, took five hours.
Fleming declined to give any details about the patient except to say the researcher was now getting medical care.
He hailed the cooperation that made the rescue possible.
"One of the things about Antarctica is that it's a unique continent where many nations come together," he said. "Our neighbors are countries like the US, the UK, Russia, China, France and many other countries."
"It's a very international space and people help out each other."
(Editing by Elaine Lies and Robert Birsel)
(This story corrects to show McMurdo is managed by the United States in paragraph 3)