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Antarctic travellers take to the air

Low cloud makes landing at Bellingshausen a risky business. Mission Antarctica

An international expedition has removed 1,000 tons of rubbish from a Russian research station in Antarctica.

One of the main sponsors of the project is Ernesto Bertarelli, chief executive of the Swiss biotechnology company, Serono.

swissinfo reporter Vincent Landon travelled to Antarctica to witness the clean-up and sail on the expedition’s yacht.

As he reports in the first part of his Antarctic diary, just getting to the Russian base proved an adventure in itself.

Part One: The Flight

Punta Arenas, Chile: We’re waiting for a flight to the Russian base at Bellingshausen. Bureaucracy, the weather and a medical emergency have so far delayed our departure.

A man with a brain tumour needed to be airlifted from Bellingshausen and we arranged to take a doctor with us so that he and the patient could fly back together.

With a ten-minute warning, we left our hotel and headed for the airport where the eight members of the group met a bemused Chilean doctor, who had only arrived from Santiago three weeks earlier and had never been in a small plane before.

About 40 minutes into the flight, the pilot received an order from the Chilean air force to return to base. They wanted to fly the doctor themselves, apparently so they could take credit for the rescue.

Meanwhile, the doctor flew to Bellingshausen (a journey of three and a half hours) in an air force Hercules. When he got there, clouds prevented a landing and he had to return to Punta Arenas.

World’s end

“It’s bizarre scenes at the end of the world,” said British polar explorer Robert Swan, the first person in history to walk to both poles, and leader of Mission Antarctica, the five-year project to clean up a Russian research station.

“We were in the air first, we had the doctor with us and we could have got the patient out. Still, the medical side must come first. We have sacrificed a day in the Antarctic for somebody else’s life, which in the big picture is worth it because it could be one of us.”

We returned to our hotel. A couple of days passed with regular briefings about possible departure times. Until the Chilean air force had completed the rescue and was off the runway at Bellingshausen, there wasn’t enough room for our plane to land.

Then the weather conspired against us. Low clouds made landing at Bellingshausen impossible.

“The most important thing is visibility,” said Antarctic guide Alejo Contreros, who added that he had once waited 14 days to fly into King George Island. “Without visibility you cannot land the aircraft. In these particular islands, you have to have minimum ceiling of 600 ft to be on the safe side.”

Dark entertainment

To keep team spirits up, Alejo presented a slide show of his remarkable exploits across Antarctica. He has played a part in most of the expeditions of the past 20 years. The group cringed during the last display when Alejo treated us to slides of Great Antarctic Plane Crashes. We recognised a plane similar to the Beechcraft we would soon be flying in!

We’re an international group of visitors to the clean-up site including two who work for the Swiss company, Serono. We’ve flown from Switzerland, Britain and Israel via Santiago to Punta Arenas. Most of us have no idea what to expect.

“As we’re finding out now, everything’s a total surprise,” said Gaz from Britain. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen from one minute to the next.”

“We’re at the end of the world,” added Rob. “You can’t do everything by schedule in a world where people normally get upset if you’re five minutes late with an aeroplane.”

Clouds of suspense

Suddenly we’re off again to the airport and once again flying to the Russian base. Unlike the last time when the weather was perfect, we’re soon engulfed in thick cloud.

The trouble is that after three and a quarter hours of flying, we will reach a point of no return. If the pilot does not think we will be able to land, he will have to turn back because otherwise he will run out of fuel.

It’s touch and go to the very end. Our captain radioed the landing strip and was told there was a break in the cloud. He decided to push on. He and his co-pilot peered anxiously around, desperately looking for ground.

Lower and lower we flew and still no sight of the runway. How can they possibly land a plane in this? Suddenly the co-pilot shouted and pointed to the left. The pilot banked sharply and we dropped out of the sky. Within a matter of seconds, we were on the ground…

Next: Boarding Mission Antarctica’s yacht

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR