Twin Otter Tales: The Rescue
A group of twelve South Africans had set out on a sixty-mile journey from a geological field base back to Sanae. They were home-bound by the same route over the Hinge Zone that Transglobe had used to reach Ryvingen. One of their heavy snow tractors plunged sixty feet into a crevasse and was jammed still further down by its one-ton fuel sledge. The three men in the cab were rescued with only a few bruises but neither tractor nor sledge could be retrieved.
There were now only two cramped cabs for nine people. Three of the group decided it would be best to return quickly to Sanae which was about a day’s ride over flattish terrain. The weather was fine so they set out on a skidoo with no tent and minimal rations.
The remainder carried on with extreme caution and camped on the edges of the Hinge Zone. At some stage a young scientist fell ninety feet down a hole and broke his neck. The five survivors, after recovering his body, made radio contact with Sanae. They learnt that the three man skidoo group had not materialised. Worried, the leader set out on the second skidoo to find them and soon picked up their tracks. He failed to notice the spare fuel can he carried scuff up against the skidoo’s chassis and start leaking. He ran out of fuel and lost radio contact with Sanae.
Meanwhile the weather closed in on the three man skidoo group. They mistook the faint hump of one ice-rise named Blaskumen for another called Esquimo. Close by the seafront, they weaved their way between crevasses along the tide crack but, uncertain whether they were east or west of Sanae base, decided to stay put. Within hours the two sleeping bags they owned between them were soaking wet. They had but eight packets of dried biscuits and no cooker to melt snow. So they began to dehydrate as they shivered away the days.
Those left at Sanae were now shocked and leaderless. They could not call up search and rescue aircraft because there was no such apparatus available. The British base 450 miles away had no operational aircraft at the time. The American ski-equipped Hercules were over 2,000 miles away at McMurdo Base and would be unlikely to be able to land anywhere in or near the search area. The Transglobe Twin Otter was the nearest, but Pretoria seemed embarrassed officially to request Transglobe’s aid in searching for their employees.
Within hours of the Transglobe team’s arrival at the 85°S cache, Giles left the 80°S camp manned by Gerry and Anto with the first fuel load. A second flight would be necessary to bring in more fuel before the team could press on so Giles flew back to 80° S. On his way there he received a radio message from Ginny saying that Pretoria might shortly ask for our Twin Otter to carry out a search and rescue flight near the coast. At 80° S Giles was some 700 miles from the likely search area and 600 miles from the South Pole. His total flying range was about a thousand miles without refuelling.
Should anything happen to the Twin Otter at this stage with Transglobe’s lines of communication so stretched, fuel at bare minimum without catering for any additional problems and two major crevasse fields still between the Transglobe team and the Pole, we could quickly end up in a trickier situation than the South Africans’. Their debacle had, after all, occurred within ninety miles of their permanent base camp.
Not having anticipated the need to turn off his engines, wait or restart again before returning to the ice team on his second fuel flight, Giles had left his only portable generator at 85° S during the first flight, in order to lighten the Otter and conserve fuel. This left him with nothing at 80° with which to power the aircraft’s vital engine heater and battery and now he had unexpectedly to wait at 80° for two hours for confirmation of the rescue mission. When he heard nothing he opted to start the aircraft engines at once before they became too cold and to fly down to Ryvingen where there was a generator and he would be closer for possible rescue work.
Gerry and Anto climbed out of the little tent at 80° to see Giles off. Anto wrote in his diary:
Giles had a good charge reading, 15 per cent rpm (well above the requisite 12.5 per cent), active ignition. . . the lot. But she wouldn’t start. Our hearts sank. We took the battery into the tent and warmed it up over a primus. Then we covered the starboard engine with a parachute and applied a Primus to it until the engine oil temperature rose to 20°C.
Again Giles tried. Again 15 per cent rpm, yet still the engines would not fire. Now we resorted to the spare battery. Gerry had assumed this was an exchange unit, so had not checked its charge. The truth was not long in coming. It had never been charged. We were stuck at 80° South. The very middle of nowhere. It was an evening of despondency as the full realisation of the disaster hit home.
Four men might die. Also the critics would now have their predictions confirmed. We would have to be rescued. A restless night followed as we tried to keep the primuses going to warm the battery. We also had to keep our little solar panel lined up with the sun to get the full benefit of its trickle charge.
Next morning: There is just enough charge left in the main battery to merit another attempt at starting off it. Again we used a draped parachute and the primuses to warm the engine to 20°C and then again attempted to start up.
As before the propeller turned, over and over, but wouldn’t fire. Giles could only keep his ignition on and watch the battery life drain away. Suddenly she fired! We broke into a carnival and rushed to dismantle the camp. We contacted Ginny and she said the South Africans did not require us now because Hannes, the boss, had at that point just reported picking up the tracks of the three missing men.
Our final take-off from 80° was hair-raising, due to the heavy load, high altitude and short strip. We lurched heavily to beyond the air strip we had cleared and clipped the first sastrugi as we lifted off. But we made it.
Late on 6th December Giles took the remainder of the fuel to 85° S which was hoped to be enough to see the team to within sixty miles of the South Pole for, without too many detours, they could make 300 miles with full sledge-loads and with no replenishment. Giles, worried about his engines, flew straight off for the Pole hoping to pick up its radio beacon when a hundred miles out. When he reached the Pole another message came in from Ginny. The South African leader was himself now missing. The other three had been out with no shelter for six days and their outlook was grim. Giles flew direct to the fifty-square-mile coastal zone where he felt the lost men must be. As the straight line distance from the Pole to Sanae is 1,300 miles, and the Twin Otter’s range is about a thousand, Giles reached the search zone on his ‘last drop’.
By the uncanny nose he had developed after seven seasons down south, Giles picked up some tracks several miles south west of Sanae base camp and soon afterwards overflew the black huddle of the lost group. He landed close by. All three men were still alive. A blizzard had blown snow into their clothing and sleeping bags which had been melted by their remaining body heat and then turned to ice as they became colder. One of them was the base doctor and he had rationed the biscuit packets carefully. The men were soaked through and utterly dehydrated. The doctor lost twenty-six pounds, the other two sixteen pounds each. Giles flew them back to Sanae, refuelled and, an hour later, located and brought in the leader as well.
Up at Ryvingen Ginny received the good news. Simon wrote: ‘Ginny gave up the radio shack for the first time in twenty-nine hours and went for a wash.”