Fears missing plane has hit Antarctic mountain

03:22, Jan 25 2013
OTTER: A file picture of a Twin Otter at the glacier landing strip at Terra Nova Bay, Antarctica.
OTTER: A file picture of a Twin Otter at the glacier landing strip at Terra Nova Bay, Antarctica.

The plane missing in Antarctica with three Canadian men on board is feared to have crashed into a mountainside.

A former executive with the Calgary-based Kenn Borek Air, which owns the Twin Otter aircraft, says a computer track of the plane's flight shows it coming to a sudden stop at just under 4000 metres.

Former general manager Steve Penikett said today that a computer program monitoring the plane tracked a dip, climb and a sudden stop, The Globe and Mail reported.

Penikett, who is now based in Kabul, Afghanistan, watched on his computer as the plane was detected flying at just under 4000m, dropped to 2700m, then climbed back to its former height, travelling at 140 knots (260kmh), before suddenly recording "zero air speed".

All of this happened "within minutes," he said.

"It's my candid opinion that this aircraft flew into the rocks," Penikett said.

"Anything's possible and again I hope for the best. But I've been through quite a few of these and it doesn't look very good to me."

He suspected the pilot may have hit "subsiding air" when the plane dropped down, with extreme down forces pushing on the machine.

Its emergency locator transmitter was activated about 10pm on Wednesday, but stopped transmitting last night.

Another Twin Otter from McMurdo Base flew over the site of the beacon activation this morning but heavy cloud and strong winds prevented any visual contact, the Rescue Co-ordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) said.

RCCNZ search and rescue mission coordinator Kevin Banaghan said the beacon stopping transmission was not unexpected given the battery life and cold conditions. The location had been well identified.

"Weather conditions remain very challenging and are forecast to continue for the next 12 hours," Banaghan said.

"However, over the next 24 hours winds in the area are forecast to drop from 90 knots (166kmh) to 20 knots (37kmh), with cloud forecast to lift and become scattered.

"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."

Weather conditions had prevented helicopters flying to the area but two helicopters, including a New Zealand Southern Lakes machine on contract to Antarctica New Zealand at Scott Base, remained on standby should weather conditions change.

The transmitter location is at a height of 3900m at the northern end of the Queen Alexandra Range, within New Zealand's search and rescue region - halfway between the South Pole and McMurdo Station - about 680km in each direction.

RCCNZ is co-ordinating the search, working with United States, Canadian and Italian authorities.

Pilot Bob Heath, who has been with the airline in the Arctic and Antarctic since 1991, is one of the three missing crew.

In the Calgary Herald blogger Kyle Thomas recalled a flight he took with Heath last July in Canada's Northwest Territories, from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk.

As they flew over the remote northern land, Heath would point out spots of interest: reindeer herders, seismic lines and a lake half-filled with saltwater that would sometimes attract whales.

"It was literally like going on a tour of the area, but not expecting that you were going to get that," Thomas said.

"It showed me how in-depth he was with the community and how he wanted to share that.

"He was passionate not just about flying but where he was flying and who he was flying with.

"He was full of these funny one-liners that he would throw out as we were going along. He's a very lighthearted kind of guy."


Bob Heath
EXPERIENCED PILOT: The pilot of a plane which is missing in Antarctica has been confirmed as Canadian extreme polar pilot Bob Heath.