PUNTA ARENAS, Chile -- The hardest part seemingly behind them, a rescue team that bucked stiff winds and the long polar night to evacuate a sick American from the South Pole looked to make one more jaunt across the Drake Passage to safety.
With two days of dangerous flying complete, the crew of a small propeller plane was one long step away from pulling off an audacious airlift to evacuate an ill, 59-year-old doctor.
The Twin Otter plane carrying Dr. Ronald Shemenski, who recently had a gall bladder attack, completed the first leg of the flight back from the South Pole, landing safely Wednesday night at the British-run Rothera base on Antarctica's Adelaide Island.
The eight-seater plane touched down on a well-lit, gravel runway more than eight hours after leaving blackened skies and subzero temperatures at the Amundsen-Scott research station on the South Pole.
The last leg awaits: a six-hour journey to Punta Arenas, Chile, where Shemenski is expected to board a commercial flight to the United States. There, he will immediately undergo medical treatment.
Rescue officials said Shemenski was in stable condition and walking by himself. "Leaving the pole, he was pretty good," said Tom Yelvington, general manager at Raytheon Polar Services, a U.S.-based company heading up the rescue effort.
The flight was an especially dangerous leg of the riskiest rescue ever at the South Pole, with the pilots of the plane braving snow, cold of minus 65 degrees, high winds and pitch-black polar darkness.
The crew and Shemenski were resting at Rothera, a research station located across the Drake Passage from Chile.
Raytheon spokeswoman Valerie Carroll said the crew would aim for an early Thursday afternoon departure.
On Wednesday, the plane carrying Shemenski landed at 8:53 p.m. EDT from the Pole, completing a 1,346-mile journey at a time in the winter season when flights to Antarctica are normally halted.
The extreme cold and darkness that generally characterize weather at the South Pole from late February until November make flights risky.
"I'm thrilled that he's safe and that the crew is safe," said Shemenski's wife, Rebecca, who has a home in Fremont, Ohio. "They still have a long way to go. We should all continue to keep them in our thoughts and prayers."
The doctor recently suffered a gall bladder ailment and has been diagnosed with inflammation of the pancreas, a potentially life-threatening ailment.
Rescuers decided to risk the evacuation because of fears that Shemenski's health could deteriorate after worse weather makes the South Pole unreachable. Shemenski was the sole physician among 50 researchers working there.
On Tuesday, the Twin Otter propeller plane flew through the darkness to the South Pole, landing on a runway -- a 2,000-foot strip of ice -- lit up by the glow of burning debris in barrels.
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