Flight in the icy wilderness recalled

Michael Field will never forget his flight on a Twin Otter plane into Antarctica's Terra Nova Bay, where three Canadians on the same model aircraft were reported missing overnight.

We had been staying at Scott Base and the small team of journalists were given a choice: the Dry Valleys by helicopter or Italy's Zucchelli Station on the side of Terra Nova Bay.

After the ample but dull food of Scott Base, the thought of an Italian meal made the choice easy.

Twin Otters - 19 seat Canadian-built work horses of the world's remote regions - are unpressurised pick-up truck-like planes built for purpose, not comfort.

For the trip we went to the snow runway at Williams Field near McMurdo and took off on a ski-equipped Twin Otter. Looming over the area was, of course, Mount Erebus.

The flight lasted more than an hour in brilliant clear weather, but it was plain that if we were faced with a forced landing the outcome would probably not be pleasant.

On one side was the endless ice shelf of the Ross Sea. From the air it was not clear how thick it was although it was at various points 10-20 metres thick, and cracked.

On the other side, and where today's search is focused, were the awesome Trans Antarctic Mountains.

"Wilderness" doesn't even begin to describe just how lonely they look. They were, however, frequently pierced by large glaciers and they may have offered hope to the missing crew yesterday.

We landed on a glacier in the mountains above Terra Nova - there is no closer runway.

A helicopter picked us up to take us down to the base. It was flown by a New Zealander who, as we crested the ridge and swooped down on to Terra Nova, let out a "yee-haa" and proclaimed it was a great day at the office. Mount Melbourne dominated the strangely snow-free rock bay.

The food was great - it turned out the Italians were eating fresh toothfish. We heard speeches and then flew back to Scott Base.

It's a place of vast beauty and flying around in it must surely be one of aviation's more exhilarating experiences.

But it's not a place for things to do wrong.