A rescue mission in Antarctica – Memories of Armando Buira
Mankind has populated all continents, and yet Antarctica is a continent that makes it anything but easy on people. The high and thick ice cliff bands of Antarctica are as repellent today as they were 200 years ago when the first Europeans discovered the Continent. And today, in a world where the mere possession of a smartphone is diminishing distances that would have been insurmountable to ordinary mortals 100 years ago, the seemingly endless ice deserts of Antarctica are perhaps one of the last inhuman enclaves of pure loneliness.
This may seem romantic to some and a scientific challenge to others. After all, with the exception of the depths of the oceans and the vastness of space, there are no real unknown places left for human beings to discover. With this in mind, it is important to underscore that Antarctica is a lonely and dangerous place. Perhaps even the most hostile area known on earth.
Unfortunately, members of expeditions and research station personnel have come to learn this the hard way. In their case, if a team member suddenly falls ill, there is no ambulance to be called, help being minutes or even hours away.
In June 1970, the head of the Argentine scientific station, Osvaldo H. Majorette, became ill. In his homeland, rescue plans began immediately. Almost 50 years later, Armando Buira, one of the Argentine Air Force’s helicopter crew members, now recalls the mission:
At that time, I was one of the crew members of the Hughes 369 HM helicopters. Allow me to tell you about this rescue mission in honor of all those involved. I am proud of every single one of them for contributing to the success of the mission, despite the adverse weather conditions and the lack of radio support.
The target of the mission was the Brown Station, the Argentine Antarctic base and scientific research station. If we look at a satellite image, Argentina does not seem to be that far away from Antarctica. At that time, Argentineans worked all year round at the research station. It was not until 1985 when they started to work only during the Antarctic summer—if it can be called summer at all – where temperatures usually get as high as -20.2 °F.
The small station is located in the so-called Paradise Bay. When the sun shines, nature does its magic. The snow glistens, and amid the snow, the contrasting color of the mountains’ underlying rock reveals a fanciful pattern.
The geographical features, i.e. mountains and cliffs, prevailing at the scientific station and its surroundings made it impossible for the airplanes based in Marambio and Matienzo to operate in the area. In June, the daylight is scarce. A day usually lasts only about 6 hours. The sun rises at 10:00 am, and sets at 4:00 pm, and the meteorological conditions vary greatly and change rapidly, with storms often lasting for days.
The Argentine Air Force, which took over the rescue mission, decided to send two Hughes 369 HM helicopters. They were the most effective tool for the task at hand; however, there was no prior experience or record of a mission like this using these helicopters.
The Hughes 369 HM, tail numbers H-31 and H-33, of the VII Air Force Brigade got ready. Crew members were: Vice-Commodore Francisco Vázquez, Lieutenant Carlos Paredes, First Corporal Horacio Santucho, Corporal Víctor Palma in the H-31; and First Lieutenant Ricardo Ciaschini, Lieutenant Armando Buira, and First Corporal Adolfo Hiden in the H-33.
Getting ready for the mission involved having the crew ready and removing the Hughes main rotor blades for transportation purposes. On June 29, at 10:00 am the crew and the helicopters were all taken onboard the C-130 transport plane to reach their destination in Rio Gallegos (Santa Cruz province). On June 30, at 7:30 am they headed to Marambio in the Antarctic Peninsula, landing at 10:50 am. After disembarking, the crew reassembled the main rotor blades and refueled the helicopters. At 12:10 pm the two Hughes took off and headed to Matienzo.
We landed at Matienzo at 1.13 pm, and after refueling with a manual fuel pump we took off at 1.40 pm and headed to the Brown Station. We had no radio support, no navigation system or specialized equipment. We only relied on visual contact with the ground or the sea. Also, it was aggravating that a Twin Otter aircraft wanted to accompany us, but could not, because of the weather conditions.
The flight didn’t go as planned, we had to descend and make a detour to keep visual contact with the ground and find a place through the mountains to cross the Peninsula. When we reached Whilhelmina Bay, we noticed that we had to make a left turn to get back to our original course in order to head towards the Brown Station.
But that was not the end of our rescue mission. To find the station without technical support, we had to bring the two helicopters down to just about 50 to 100 meters above sea level. While flying over the Gerlache Strait, we hit severe turbulence and had to dodge the icebergs that kept appearing to avoid collision. Both helicopters had to perform life-threatening maneuvers due to low altitude flight conditions.
Despite all adversities, one hour after takeoff, we reached the station. At 2:40 pm the H-31 landed close to the buildings. With our helicopter, the H-33, we landed a few minutes later after overcoming the challenge of finding a proper landing surface. We decided to land in front of the building next to the flagpole, a very narrow field and yet the only possible place for landing. We needed to land because we were worried about too much fuel consumption which could endanger our return.
At 3.08 pm we took off again, but now with the patient onboard, and flew northwards through the Gerlache Strait, with a 50 meter ceiling, heavy snowfall, and a 500 meter visibility range. We aimed for a clearing in the clouds above Nansen Island, where we could finally gain altitude to head back to Matienzo.
Instinct told us that we had to land as quickly as possible. And it was the right call to make. Fuel was scarce, and the weather was striking again. Once more the helicopters had to change course in order not to be forced by the weather to ditch. As I’ve already explained, Antarctica has very short days, but with the last bit of daylight and the warning light of the fuel tank flashing red, at 4:00 pm the Matienzo base reappeared before our eyes.
On June 30 they stayed overnight at the Matienzo base and on July 1 Marambio took off, loading the helicopters on the C-130 and flying to Rio Gallegos. There they stayed overnight and on July 2 they flew to Buenos Aires. Their mission had been a total success.
It was a close call. But decisiveness, courage, steadfastness and professionalism together with experience and excellence in training made it possible to succeed.
After 40 years, the rescuers received official recognition for their mission. On July 14, 2010, the Argentine National Congress acknowledged the mission on its 40th anniversary as «a complete success, thanks to the efforts and professionalism of the Argentine Air Force men, against all adversities.»