Wind, snow thwart search for plane in Antarctica

AP News
Posted: Jan 24, 2013 9:53 PM

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Hurricane-force winds and snow were preventing searchers Friday from reaching a plane believed to have crashed in an Antarctic mountain range while carrying three Canadians.

Its emergency locator started transmitting late Wednesday about 680 kilometers (420 miles) north of the South Pole, but the weather has prevented search planes overhead from seeing the presumed crash site itself.

Rescuers don't know if the men are alive. Their plane has survival gear including tents and food.

The locator stopped transmitting Thursday night and crews have been unable to establish radio contact. Rescuers say a break in the weather is forecast Saturday.

One man on the plane has been identified as Bob Heath from the Northwest Territories, an experienced pilot in both the Antarctic and Arctic. Rescuers say the other two men were also part of the flight crew and that no passengers were aboard.

The propeller-driven de Havilland Twin Otter, was flying from a U.S. station near the pole to an Italian research base in Terra Nova Bay. Rescuers believe it crashed in the Queen Alexandra mountain range at an elevation of about 3,900 meters (13,000 feet).

Winds of up to 90 knots (104 miles per hour) have been blowing Thursday and Friday.

Steve Rendle, a spokesman for New Zealand's Rescue Coordination Centre, said rescue planes circled the area on Thursday and Friday but have been unable to spot the downed plane due to poor visibility. He said the battery on the locator beacon may have run out but that rescuers have a good fix on its location.

He said that when the weather clears, crews hope to establish a forward base at the Beardmore Glacier about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the assumed crash site. He said there's a rudimentary runway and a fuel depot at the glacier.

For now, two helicopters and a small plane remain at McMurdo Station, the main U.S. base about four hours' flight away. He said the elevation provides extra challenges for helicopter crews.

Heath's wife, Lucy Heath, told the Calgary Sun newspaper that airline officials had told her her husband's plane was down, and she said she was just waiting for more news: "I'm so worried."

Bob Heath wrote on networking site LinkedIn that he typically spends this time of year coaching and mentoring other pilots in polar regions.

The missing plane is owned and operated by Kenn Borek Air Ltd., a Calgary firm that charters aircraft to the U.S. Antarctic program. In a release, the National Science Foundation said the plane was flying in support of the Italian Antarctic program.

Authorities from New Zealand, Canada, the U.S. and Italy are working on the rescue operation.

Antarctica has no permanent residents, but several thousand people live there in the Southern Hemisphere summer as a number of countries send scientists and other staff to research stations. The U.S. runs the largest program, with about 850 staff at its McMurdo Station and another 200 at its Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, where the Canadians' flight originated.