July 2001 IBEW Journal
At this time of year, no matter what time it is, it's the dark of night. The South Pole's desolate landscape is an endless expanse of ice and the weather comes in only two varieties-subzero and inhospitable.
The South Pole, the geographic bottom of the earth, is host to no animals or plant life (one must travel north to see seals and penguins); only a small crew of scientists and support staff live there for a year or so at a time. Because of the blackness and utter isolation, it's one of the best places in the world to study the stars.
The 50 or so people there for the winter season live and work in a snow-blown, domelike structure. Faulty satellites provide only intermittent computer and telephone contact with the outside world.
These are the conditions under which two IBEW members living at "The Pole" helped get a critically ill co-worker to safety off Antarctica, the harshest continent on Earth. The dramatic rescue involved a tiny plane winging to the isolated base in pitch-black conditions and landing on skis instead of wheels. How two adventuresome IBEW members living at the South Pole were key to the rescue of the doctor is guaranteed to be a tale that Aaron Coy, Local 48, Portland, Oregon, and Dave Arnett, Local 292, Minneapolis, Minnesota, will revel in telling their grandchildren.
The two wiremen working at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for Raytheon Polar Services were up for 24 hours preparing for the historic flight. The rescue plane's landing at the South Pole was the last leg of a journey that started in Canada and traveled via South America across the Drake Passage to Antarctica's Rothera, a British base.
In advance of the plane's arrival, Coy and Arnett insulated electrical cords for the Twin Otter plane to hook into after landing, wired a "warm-up shack" near the taxiway and lit a makeshift runway with drums filled with burning jet oil to guide the aircraft in the dark.
"It was quite a sight seeing points of fire up and down the (taxi) way for about two miles," Coy said in a first-hand account of the rescue posted on the IBEW web site at www.ibew.org. In the plane were provisions like salt, which the crew ran out of two weeks earlier, and the doctor sent to replace Ronald Shemenski, who had developed a severe inflammation of the pancreas.
After a flawless landing, Coy and Arnett helped the flight technicians plug the plane into heater blocks to keep the engine warm in the subzero temperatures. While the pilots rested and checked weather reports for the flight out, Coy stood by, making sure vital circuit breakers didn't trip. By the time pilots determined it was time to go, they discovered that some of the plane's rear flaps were frozen. But once the heavy equipment brought out to thaw the flaps had worked its magic, the accumulated heat had served to freeze the plane to the ice on the ground. The only way to free the plane was to climb onto equipment next to the wing and shake it.
Finally the plane broke free and taxied to the makeshift runway, where it turned around and took off into the minus 64-degree air.
The evacuation captured the attention of the international media for days surrounding the April 27 rescue. Press reports called it one of the riskiest efforts ever by a small plane to the South Pole, with pilots of the eight-seat craft braving snow, temperatures of minus 65 degrees Fahrenheit, high winds and darkness.
When they are not assisting with daring international rescues, Coy and Arnett perform the work of electrical construction and maintenance. Coy has extra responsibility to maintain the base's fire alarm system, which he says is quirky at the 10,000-foot elevation, extreme temperatures and humidity under 1 percent. The two are also helping construct a new base to replace the dome, working these days on installing lights for the new station's tunnel that will serve to blast water into the ice to make more water.
Coy, who arrived in November, plans to stay at the South Pole for a year, completing a summer-winter cycle. Arnett landed "on the ice" at the end of January and will stay until October or November.
Summer at the Pole is distinguishable from winter by the welcome appearance of the sun and temperatures that climb up to 17 or 16 below zero.
"Once you are here for a while, your body temperature lowers a degree or two," Coy said. "In the summer, I can go outside in jeans and a T-shirt."
Arnett said he is looking forward to his month-long stay in New Zealand on the way home.
Coy said he misses something most people take for granted-the color green.
"I grew up in Portland, where it rains all the time and there are lots of evergreen trees," he said. "Everything here is blackness or white. There's not much else."
|More Pictures and E-mail from the South Pole|