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US assists in evacuating Australian expeditioner from Antarctica

An Australian expeditioner has been successfully evacuated from Antarctica after a five-day operation that included U.S. and Chinese help, the Australian Antarctic Division said.

The rescue involved ships, helicopters and planes covering thousands of kilometers in east Antarctica, according to a news release Thursday.

“Antarctica really brings nations together to support each other in our operations,” Australian Antarctic Division director Kim Ellis said in the release.

“We’ve been doing these medevacs for a long time, but this particular operation was in the very best spirit of that multinational cooperation.”

Citing medical confidentiality, the news release did not disclose the expeditioner’s condition other than to say the emergency was not COVID-19 related.

The expeditioner was at Australia’s Davis research station in east Antarctica when they needed to be evacuated.

A Chinese icebreaker happened to already be in transit to a nearby station and deployed its helicopters to take a team of Australians from Davis to a site where they built a glacial runway to allow a U.S. aircraft to land, according to the release.

Meanwhile, a U.S ski-equipped Basler aircraft flew from the U.S. McMurdo station to the Australian-operated Wilkins Aerodrome, a terminal for intercontinental air service, to pick up an Australian doctor, according to the release.

The Basler then flew to the runway to pick up the patient and bring them back to the Wilkins Aerodrome, the release said. There, an Australian Airbus that had flown from Hobart took the patient back to the Australian city, arriving Thursday.

Australia needed international help because it does not have a small ski-equipped intra-continental aircraft available now because of concerns about introducing COVID-19 to the continent, according to the release.

“We’re extraordinarily grateful to the Chinese and U.S. Antarctic Programs for the fact that they were able to change their operating models and come to our assistance,” Ellis said.

The coronavirus pandemic first reached Antarctica earlier this week when 36 people at a Chilean research station tested positive for the virus.

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