Hurricane-force winds, heavy snow hamper search for missing Canadians
Published Thursday, January 24, 2013 7:24AM EST
Last Updated Friday, January 25, 2013 7:30AM EST
The search for three Canadian crew members missing in frigid Antartica after their plane disappeared over a mountain range is on hold until there's a break in the weather, search officials said Friday (New Zealand time).
A rescue plane flew over the Queen Alexandra Passage mountain range on Friday morning but failed to spot the missing plane.
Calgary-based Kenn Borek Air, which owns the missing plane and a rescue aircraft, said it will make another attempt to locate the Canadians as soon as weather permits.
In a statement, the company said a second aircraft has been deployed in “a spotter capacity,” flying at a higher altitude over the area where the plane disappeared.
The missing Twin Otter's emergency locator transmitter was activated around 10 p.m. local time Wednesday as the plane travelled from a U.S. research station at the South Pole to an Italian research base in Terra Nova Bay.
A plane from the U.S. McMurdo Base then flew over the site where the beacon activated on Friday, but heavy cloud and strong winds prevented any visual contact, said search and rescue officials in New Zealand who are co-ordinating the search.
Hurricane-force winds, heavy snow and cloud cover made it all but impossible to see the men or their plane.
Michael Flyger of the Rescue Co-ordination Centre New Zealand told CTV News that wind gusts have been reaching 170 kilometres per hour.
However, there is hope that the winds will die down and the cloud cover will life over the next 24 hours.
"When conditions ease, the intention is to set up a forward base at a location approximately 50 kilometres from the beacon site, from which to launch operations to the site," search and rescue mission coordinator Kevin Banaghan said in a statement.
Two helicopters are on standby, ready to fly in when conditions improve.
Rescue crews have obtained a fix on the plane's location from its beacon, but there has so far been no contact with the crew. The beacon has stopped transmitting, likely because the battery-- good for roughly 24 hours-- has died, officials said.
Flyger said the missing plane is equipped with survival suits, cold-weather tents and food and water to last up to five days.
Friends have identified the pilot as Bob Heath from the Northwest Territories, an experienced pilot in both the Antarctic and Arctic. Heath has more than 20 years’ experience flying in extreme conditions.
His wife, Lucy Heath, told the Calgary Sun newspaper that she'd been called by airline officials and told "Bob's plane was down, and they were trying to reach it." She said she was just waiting for more news: "I'm so worried."
His friends said if anyone can get through an ordeal like this, it's Heath.
"He's a bit of a living legend up (North)," friend and fellow pilot Sebastien Seykora told The Canadian Press. "He's a very experienced pilot."
"He's been flying down there for at least a decade," said Seykora. "If somebody had a question about how to do things, especially about going down there, he would be the guy they would ask."
Heath, who lives in Inuvik, N.W.T., has logged thousands of hours teaching young flyers in regions from the Maritimes to northern Ontario and administers tests to other pilots, said Roger Townsend, who was a co-pilot with Heath out of Red Lake, Ont. Flying with Heath was always a learning experience, Townsend said.
"He used it as an opportunity to impart knowledge. He's a true instructor with an extraordinary passion for teaching and training."
On the online networking site LinkedIn, Heath writes that he typically spends this time of year coaching and mentoring other pilots to upgrade their skills in polar regions.
It's believed that Heath was accompanied by a co-pilot and an engineer on the flight.
Officials from the Canadian High Commission in Wellington are working closely with local authorities organizing the search from New Zealand.
"Consular officials stand ready to provide consular services as required," said spokesperson Barbara Harvey.
Chris Payne, an oceanographic technician of the University of British Columbia, has participated in the U.S. and German Antarctic programs.
He said the geography would be "tricky" for making an emergency landing but noted the pilots are experienced.
"I have the utmost confidence that these men will have the food and equipment and clothing necessary to survive several days," Payne told CTV News Channel.
Marianne Douglas, director of the Canadian Circumpolar Institute and a professor at the University of Alberta, told CTV News Channel that Antarctica is known as the windiest continent because of its mountains, location at the South Pole and its glaciers.
Douglas, who's travelled to Antarctica by plane and ship, said most people who go there are trained in survival.