A snow-covered, windswept, freezing, inhospitable, inverse Grand Canyon awaits rescuers trying to reach three airmen missing in Antarctica.
The Canadian men aboard a Twin Otter aircraft went missing on Wednesday night. Their locator beacon was set off about halfway between the South Pole and McMurdo Station. Dense cloud, snow and winds up to 170kmh have hampered rescue efforts.
Antarctica New Zealand operations and infrastructure manager Graeme Ayres said it was difficult to describe the vastness.
"The terrain, if I was to liken it to something, it's sort of like the Grand Canyon. It's very similar to that, only on a reverse scale. It's huge. And glaciated as well.
"The winds have been blowing up to about 90 knots; the visibility is about 200 metres on the ground. The temperatures with that will be about minus 30 degrees Celsius [plus] wind chill. They're hard conditions to work in and hard conditions to mount a rescue in."
Conditions are forecast to ease today, meaning it may be possible for two helicopters to reach a forward base on the Beardmore Glacier, about 50 kilometres from the locator beacon transmission site.
Aerial surveillance would identify possible chopper landing sites, Ayres said, and how far the joint United States-New Zealand rescue team may have to go on foot. Even a short-distance mission was dangerous and like "mounting an expedition", he said.
Maritime New Zealand spokesman Steve Rendle said the beacon was transmitting from high on a mountain in the Queen Alexandra range, at an altitude of about 3900 metres.
The improving forecast meant the helicopters may get the chance to reach the Beardmore base this morning, he said.
A former executive with Calgary-based Kenn Borek Air, which owns the missing aircraft, says a computer track of the plane's flight shows it coming to a sudden stop at just under 4000m.
Former general manager Steve Penikett said yesterday that a computer program monitoring the plane tracked a dip, climb and a sudden stop, Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail reported.
Penikett 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".
"It's my candid opinion that this aircraft flew into the rocks," he said.
- with Fairfax
- The Press
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