US, China help evacuate Australian from Antarctica

A helicopter from Chinese icebreaker Xue Long 2 helping in the evacuation of an Australian expeditioner in Antarctica.
A helicopter from Chinese icebreaker Xue Long 2 helping in the evacuation of an Australian expeditioner in Antarctica. PHOTO: POLAR RESEARCH INSTITUTE OF CHINA

Australia, China and the United States put aside their geopolitical rivalry and worked together to evacuate an Australian expeditioner from Antarctica.

The five-day rescue mission, involving ships, helicopters and planes, needed the multi-country collaboration as Australia does not have small ski-equipped aircraft to fly within Antarctica, the Australian Antarctic Division said last Thursday.

"Antarctica really brings nations together to support each other in our operations," said its director Kim Ellis.

"We've been doing these medevacs (medical evacuations) for a long time, but this particular operation was in the very best spirit of that multinational cooperation."

The collaboration comes despite tensions between Beijing and both Canberra and Washington over trade and other issues.

Mr Ellis said helicopters were sent from Chinese icebreaker Xue Long 2 to take a team and equipment from Davis research station in East Antarctica to a site 40km inland, and evacuate the patient from there.

He added that it was fortunate Xue Long 2 was in transit to Zhongshan station, near Davis, when it helped out in the mission.

A US ski-equipped Basler aircraft flew 2,200km from the US station McMurdo to Australia's Wilkins Aerodrome, near Casey station, where it picked up an Australian doctor. It then made a 2,800km round trip to transfer the patient to Wilkins, Mr Ellis said.

An Australian Airbus A-319 flew from Hobart, Tasmania's capital, to Wilkins to pick up the patient, returning to the city last Thursday afternoon.

Mr Ellis said "the synergy of operating capabilities, incredible expertise and a favourable weather window enabled us to bring the patient back from Antarctica to Australia within a week".

He added that Chinese and United States Antarctic programmes "were able to change their operating models and come to our assistance".

Another reason for the success of the operation was "the Australian expeditioners who displayed courage and resilience and skill... in tough conditions", he said.

The patient's details were not made public, but officials said the condition was not related to Covid-19.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 27, 2020, with the headline US, China help evacuate Australian from Antarctica. Subscribe