Heroes of the sky

  • TEXT MARC BIELEFELD
  • ILLUSTRATION KAGAN MCLEOD

They go where others fear to fly: everywhere and anytime. We visit the pilots of Kenn Borek Air, who brave the South Pole even in the dead of winter.

The telephone rings. The voice on the other end is agitated: I’m sorry, but we have a problem at the South Pole. Yes, it’s very urgent. Sure, I know it’s winter down there. Yes, I already called them. No, nobody wants to do it. Could you fly down and take care of it?

The telephone call to the head of operations at Kenn Borek Air must have gone something like that. The apologetic, almost pleading words offer one of the most difficult missions in (civil) aviation: a dark, dangerous flight in the freezing cold. The small Canadian charter company has just been asked to fly down to the Amundsen Scott South Pole research center in the middle of the winter. That’s 5000 kilometers through the Arctic night to the southernmost end of the earth, to a place where wind chill drops temperatures to minus 80° Celsius, where the last supply plane has usually come and gone by February and where nobody can get out again for the next six months.

Pilots have only flown to this South Pole station so completely cut off from the rest of the world in winter a total of three times – in 2001, 2003 and 2016. And each time, they flew Kenn Borek Air, an airline that specializes in this type of mission. Taking off when others politely decline, landing where others wouldn’t even dream of going. Their motto: “Anytime, anywhere, worldwide.”

The most recent venture to the South Pole took place on June 21, 2016, when the U.S. National Science Foundation, which operates the Amundsen Scott station in Antarctica, reported that one of the men there had suffered a heart attack. Flying the sick man out was the only option. So the Kenn Borek Air mechanics prepared two Twin Otter prop planes, taking out seats and adding an extra kerosene tank, pumping out unnecessary hydraulic fluid and coating the engine with an ice-resistant product. Then the crews took off from their base in Calgary and flew via Texas, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Chile and the stormy Drake Passage to the British Rothera station on the Antarctic peninsula – 17 000 kilometers, which it took them four days to cover. A raging blizzard and temperatures of minus 60° C welcomed them at the edge of the icy desert. The crews for the last leg of the journey – two pilots, a mechanic and a physician for each plane – had taken a scheduled flight to South America so as to be rested for the operation. They waited a day for the weather to improve, then one of the planes took off toward ravenblack Antarctica. The second plane was there as back-up in case of an emergency.

  What the crew feared the most was moisture freezing on the wings as they flew through low-lying cloud, but weather conditions looked stable. They reached the South Pole after nine-and-a-half hours and landed on a snowy strip flanked by kerosene flares. Clouds of snow crystals flew up and the air crackled with the cold. The crew removed the Twin Otters’ batteries so that they wouldn’t freeze, installed heating pads on the engine and inserted bamboo poles under the skis to prevent them from freezing to the ground. During their eight-hour rest, the pilots warmed up the kerosene, which would have turned viscous in the cold. Then they refueled, heated the cabin with a generator, took their patient on board and flew back to Rothera. The mission was successful – another brave feat pulled off by Kenn Borek Air, for which the crew received this year’s Heroism Laureate Award – an aviation Oscar, so to speak – in Washington D.C. in March.

Illustration: Kenn Borek Air Pilots getting prepared

 The company is headquartered in an unassuming office building west of the airport in Calgary. There’s not even a sign on the door. Back in the 1960s, the late founder, Kenn Borek, worked for gas and oil companies. Not a pilot himself, he soon bought his first plane and offered logistics services to remote parts of the country. Assignments to the Arctic, to Greenland, followed, and then the first landing in Antarctica in 1984. Today, Kenn Borek Air has 42 planes in operation and sends mechanics and pilots all around the world. Its customers include research organizations, such as Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute, logistics companies and government agencies, like the Australian Antarctic Division. The U.S. government has often called on Kenn Borek, too, because even U.S. Air Force pilots tend to pale around the gills when asked to fly to the North Pole or other equally inhospitable regions of the earth.

Dressed in sneakers and a T-shirt, Wallace Dobchuk, the 38-year-old chief pilot who flew the most recent mission to the South Pole, describes the Twin Otter, his favorite plane. “It’s an untiring workhorse,” he says, “not much in the way of hydraulics and zero high tech.” That’s the secret to Kenn Borek Air’s success: flying simple aircraft on which hardly anything ever breaks, and which the pilots have many years of experience flying. They know every valve and every hinge and exactly how the plane behaves in extreme conditions. Kenn Borek Air also has the necessary logistics in place to maintain and operate aircraft all over the world – as well as a rare license to manufacture spare parts.

Old kerosene tanks from the sixties lie outside the old hangar that houses the main fleet. “Cheap to get a hold of and indestructible,” says Dobchuk, “and that’s important, because there’s no repair service where we land.” In addition to the Twin Otters, the crew flies a number of old Douglas DC-3s, which are larger planes, but just as stalwart and straightforward.

  The pilots have performed many of their heroic deeds with these planes, which they cherish like the apple of their eye. They have flown missions for science into civil-war-torn South ­Sudan and have helped to fight huge forest fires at home in Canada. For years, they operated the air taxi fleet in the Maldives, and they have landed on moving ice floes in the Arctic. After landing at the Argentine base Esperanza in a snow storm, they returned to the plane the following day to find it buried wing-deep in snow. In Greenland, they served science by operating week-long, low-flight missions, and also ended up rescuing two French adventurers attempting to reach the North Pole on skis. When two dog trainers went missing, also in Greenland, the phone rang at Kenn Borek Air. The pilots flew out and found the two Danes four days later, on a floating chunk of ice.

Dobchuk no longer counts how many times he has landed on sheer ice. “You have to find a suitable place to land while moving at 160 kph, and there are no runways, so you need a good eye.” And a lot of experience. The ice could be melting, and bumps or standing water could ruin the skis. From the air, you also have to estimate the thickness of the ice and whether or not the floe will crack beneath your weight. “Taking off and flying back would be impossible then – you don’t want that.”
In the hangar, the mechanics are readying a couple of Twin Otters for the coming season in Antarctica. During the summer, Kenn Borek Air flies regular missions there and also flies the red-and-white DC-3 Chinare for the Polar Research Institute of China. Dismantled skis, ice hammers, pumps and survival gear are scattered around; warm sleeping bags are ready to go on board. Maps hang on the office walls of the various regions where Kenn Borek Air operates: Alaska, Indonesia, Australia, the North Pole. On a table beside the reception desk, a thank-you letter addressed to the crew of the most recent South Pole mission bears the stamp of the U.S. government – and the signature of none other than Barack Obama.