Still hope for rescue of three airmen in harsh Antarctica

STACEY KIRK
Last updated 05:00 25/01/2013
Bob Heath
EXPERIENCED PILOT: The pilot of a plane which is missing in Antarctica has been confirmed as Canadian extreme polar pilot Bob Heath.

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A rescue mission to locate three missing airmen after their plane went down in Antarctica has failed to penetrate heavy cloud cover and been lashed by 170kmh winds.

The Canadian men aboard a Twin Otter light plane went missing on Wednesday night. Their locator beacon was set off about halfway between the South Pole and McMurdo Station.

The pilot has been confirmed as extreme polar pilot Bob Heath.

The search for the men was suspended about 6.30pm yesterday, after weather conditions prevented a C-130 Hercules, hovering over their believed location, from flying below 22,000 feet (6700 metres).

The missing plane was on a return flight from the South Pole to the Italian Antarctic base at Terra Nova Bay.

The men aboard were all understood to be working for Kenn Borek Air, a Calgary-based airline, Neil Gilbert from Antarctica New Zealand said.

Vicious 170kmh wind gusts and "white-out conditions" had hampered the search since it began.

The Hercules spent five hours circling the area the men were thought to be in, but could not descend low enough to gain any sight of them.

Search and Rescue Mission co-ordinator John Ashby said the plane returned to McMurdo Base about 5.30pm.

"The forecast for the [following] 12 hours is for similar conditions, but if there is a break in the weather the joint New Zealand and US field rescue team is ready to go from McMurdo Base at short notice," Mr Ashby said.

Canadian newspaper Canmore Leader reported Mr Heath had been identified as the pilot by his wife, Lucy. He is from Inuvik, in Canada's northwestern territories.

Mrs Heath said she was "just waiting for news".

Mr Heath was an experienced pilot and said last year in an interview: "I have done nine or 10 trips to Antarctica as a pilot for Kenn Borek and worked for the Americans, Italians and tourist ops at Patriot Hills.

"I also fly in the Arctic and do grizzly bear, polar bear and Beluga whale surveys."

It is thought the men had enough food for five days as well as tents strong enough to weather the storm. Given Mr Heath's experience, search and rescue crews yesterday held a strong hope they were still alive.

The beacon had been transmitting continually since it was set off on Wednesday night.

Maritime NZ said the signal was coming from the northern end of the Queen Alexandra Range, which fell within New Zealand's search and rescue region. The range is about halfway between the South Pole and McMurdo Station - about 680 kilometres in each direction.

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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