Crews again can't reach downed plane in Antarctica

Associated Press

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — For a second day, searchers have been unable to reach a plane believed to have crashed in an Antarctic mountain range while carrying three Canadians.

Hurricane-force winds and snow Friday prevented teams from getting to the plane. Its emergency locator started transmitting late Wednesday in mountains about 680 kilometers (420 miles) north of the South Pole.

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 they will likely need to wait until Saturday for a break in the weather.

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 plane, a propeller-driven de Havilland Twin Otter, was flying from a U.S. station near the South 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 continued in the area.

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 winds of up to 90 knots (104 miles per hour) continued Friday in the area.

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.

But for now, two helicopters and a small plane remain at McMurdo Station, the main U.S. base about four hours' flight away. Rendle said the weather is forecast to improve Saturday and crews are hopeful they can reach the downed plane then. He said the elevation provides extra challenges for helicopter crews.

Heath's wife, Lucy Heath, told the Calgary Sun newspaper Thursday 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."

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.

The missing plane is owned and operated by Kenn Borek Air Ltd., a Canadian firm based in Calgary 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.

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