Injured expeditioner evacuated by US aircraft

US C-130 Hercules aircraft on a sea-ice runway at Davis station
US C-130 Hercules aircraft on sea-ice runway at Davis station (Photo: Bob Paton)
US C-130 Hercules aircraft lifting off from sea-ice runway at Davis station with injured expeditioner Dwayne Rooke on board. Aurora Australis in the background.

5 November 2008

The United States Antarctic Program has assisted in the evacuation from Antarctica of injured Australian expeditioner Dwayne Rooke of Devonport, Tasmania.

An LC-130 Hercules military aircraft, assigned to the 13th Air Expeditionary Group, landed on a temporary runway that had been prepared at Australia's Davis station. The sea-ice runway, which is 3000 metres long on ice 1.8 metres thick, was prepared by station personnel over the past week.

Mr Rooke was evacuated in a 10-hour flight to hospital in Hobart, Tasmania. A combined US and Australian medical team was on board to assist in the evacuation. Mr Rooke's condition is described as serious but stable.

Mr Rooke suffered multiple fractures when he came off a quad bike on Monday 20 October while on a field trip at Trajer Ridge, around 25 kilometres from Davis station where he had spent almost the past 12 months as the station's chef.

The Director of the Australian Antarctic Division, Dr Tony Press, said he was very grateful to the National Science Foundation - which runs the US Antarctic program - and other US agencies for their help in this medical evacuation.

"Our collaboration on this operation is a tribute to our excellent relationship with the US Antarctic Program and a fantastic example of the collaboration that typifies Antarctic operations.

"The assistance of the US has enabled a quicker and more stable evacuation option than Australia's research and resupply ship Aurora Australis, which has now reached Davis after being diverted from Casey station soon after the incident occurred.

"The ship's progress to Davis over the past week has been slowed by bad weather and heavy sea-ice so last night's air evacuation was a very welcome and much speedier option," Dr Press said.

Dr Press went on to thank others involved in the evacuation effort.

"I would like to acknowledge the outstanding effort of the doctors and lay medical team at Davis station in keeping the patient stable and comfortable around the clock for more than two weeks until his evacuation.

"The whole team at Davis station contributed to an excellent result in difficult circumstances, from those who built the temporary sea-ice runway to those who kept the station running and supported the evacuation efforts in many different ways.

"Many thanks also to those on board the Aurora Australis who diverted from their planned route and provided valuable support to this operation by flying in relief medical staff and supplies. The patience of those whose scheduled work has been affected by this incident is appreciated, including wintering expeditioners at Casey station whose return to Australia has been delayed.

"Staff of the Australian Antarctic Division and throughout the Antarctic program have provided extraordinary efforts over the past two weeks to ensure Mr Rooke's successful transportation to specialist care and I thank every person involved in this endeavour for their hard work and dedication.

"It's terrific to see how everyone pulls together at times like these to achieve such a positive and satisfying result," said Dr Press.

Aircraft facts

Turbo-prop LC-130 Hercules aircraft are ski-equipped aircraft used by the United States Antarctic program. The primary purpose of the LC-130 aircraft is to support the US scientific community in the Antarctic by transporting cargo and personnel from McMurdo station to various field stations and camps, including the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station.

The specialist nature of the aircraft, coupled with the expertise of the US Air Force and Army flight and medical personnel, made it an ideal option for this type of operation. The plane used in the evacuation was deployed to the US Antarctic station McMurdo before flying on to Davis for last night's airlift.

The LC-130 aircraft are equipped with fully retractable skis that allow the aircraft to land on snow and ice as well as on traditional runways. The aircraft have provisions for using jet-assisted-takeoff rockets, four on each side of the aircraft, that are used when the LC-130 operates from rough, unprepared snow surfaces or when shorter takeoff runs are needed.

Watch a video of Dr Tony Press and Dr Jeff Ayton of the Australian Antarctic Division along with Captain Greg Richert and Major Dave Lafrance of the US Air Force speaking to the media

[Video]

Injured expeditioner evacuated by US aircraft

Video transcript

Dr Tony Press:
Well, it was a great relief last night to see the aircraft carrying Dwayne land at Hobart Airport shortly before midnight and, on behalf of all the Australian Antarctic expeditioners, we wish him the best. The second thing I’d like to say is that it’s a great tribute to the medical staff and the lay medical team that have looked after Dwayne for the last 18 days that he’s arrived in as good a shape as he could and the reports are that he’s as well as can be expected under very trying circumstances.

The third thing is that I’d really like to thank our colleagues from the US National Science Foundation and US Antarctic Program and our friends from the US Airforce that have given us a great deal of assistance in getting Dwayne back to Australia. This is something that underpins the spirit of the Antarctic Treaty and the cooperation between Antarctic Treaty parties and we’re very, very thankful for the help.

The last thing I’d like to say is my staff have done a magnificent job and I’m really proud of them.

Captain Greg Richert:
For the patient’s safety, we had to make sure to keep him immobilised due to his injuries, which was very complicated in a plane. They vibrate quite a bit, which can also add to a lot of pain problems due to his injuries, which I really shouldn’t get into for privacy’s sake. He had a significant amount of injuries that required a lot of pain control. For that, we ended up having to sedate him entirely for the entire flight so, because of that, we chose to bring a critical care specialist with me from Hawaii which came down a couple of days before the mission.

And then also we had a physician from the Australian Antarctic Division Department, who was a critical care specialist and critical care nurse from their team come, along with my three-person (myself included) team at McMurdo Station gave us an eight-person medical team that was able to intensively monitor the patient the entire flight, keep him stable, keep him sedated for comfort and basically make sure his positioning didn’t change that would further aggravate his injuries.

And the entire flight he was stable. It went as well as we could have hoped for and was very uneventful once we got him on the plane and got him stabilised.

Major Dave Lafrance:
The challenge for us was to see how well the folks at Davis had actually prepared the surface for us and they kind of went so we’ve got to get a plane in, what’s the length that you need and it’s not like you have somebody on station that’s experienced at all the camps at making a proper runway and so, you know, we asked him for as many pictures as possible and I’m envisioning quite a rough surface and it’s going to be quite challenging and I’ll tell you that the folks down there just prepared a great runway for us. It was smooth, it was quite slick but the biggest obstacle for us was making sure the penguins stayed out of our way. [laughter]

They did a fabulous job getting it ready for us and they actually, when we landed, they said, “You only used about a quarter of the runway and we prepared all this runway for you,” and I said, “Don’t worry. Tomorrow we’re taking out very heavy so I’ll use almost all your runway,” and so they did a great job and it made my job a lot easier.

Dr Jeff Ayton:
Firstly, I’d like to say I’m extremely grateful for the efforts of Captain Richards and his team at bringing Dwayne back to Hobart. Dwayne was cared for by the Flying Doctor for 10 days in Antarctica and the lay medical assistants. He has serious injuries but he’s stable and he remains stable and he was stable throughout the flight and this morning at the Royal Hobart Hospital he remains stable. He is being managed in intensive care and will be going to surgery at the earliest opportunity to start surgery on his ankles and feet, which are the most concerning injuries for Dwayne.

The doctor we have down there, Dr Lloyd Fletcher, he is a very experienced doctor. He’s on his eighth winter in Antarctica. He’s a generalist remote medicine doctor and he has done a heroic effort with his lay team in managing Dwayne. Certainly, there are stresses and that those stresses and fatigue are managed with support, tele-medical support, back to the polar medicine unit here and we had four-hourly contacts with the station and the station doctor and the lay medical assistants throughout that period. Of course, it was a huge relief to get the second doctor in at day 10 and some additional medical supplies and then a further relief to have Dwayne safely back in Australia in the early hours of this morning.

The family had an opportunity to see Dwayne at the airport last night at about - just before midnight and I’ve been in contact with the family right throughout the scenario.

[end transcript]