Antarctic rescue flight turned back as weather remains impassable

A rescue flight on its way to a group of Canadians missing in Antarctica has had to turn around because of bad weather that isn’t expected to improve until at least early Friday.

But those who know the pilot of the downed Twin Otter say that if anyone would know how to get through, it would be Bob Heath.

“He’s a bit of a living legend up (North),” said friend and fellow pilot Sebastien Seykora. “He’s a very experienced pilot.”

The airplane began transmitting signals from its emergency locator beacon early Wednesday. Aircraft tried twice to spot it in the mountainous area where it went down but failed due to heavy, low cloud.

Early indications on Thursday were that the cloud had lifted a bit, giving rescuers a window. Those hopes were dashed when the plane got in the air.

“They’ve gone out and flown over and they haven’t been able to see anything,” said Steve Rendle from New Zealand’s Rescue Co-ordination Centre. “They are heading back to a fuelling depot to wait out the weather.”

No information was available on the fate of the three men aboard the ski-equipped Twin Otter, which is owned by Calgary-based Kenn Borek Air. Those who know Heath said he’ll know what to do.

“He’s been flying down there for at least a decade,” said Seykora. “If somebody had a question about how to do things, especially about going down there, he would be the guy they would ask.”

Heath, who lives in Inuvik, N.W.T., has logged thousands of hours teaching young flyers in regions from the Maritimes to northern Ontario and administers tests to other pilots, said Roger Townsend, who was a co-pilot with Heath out of Red Lake, Ont. Flying with Heath was always a learning experience, Townsend said.

“He used it as an opportunity to impart knowledge. He’s a true instructor with an extraordinary passion for teaching and training.”

The Twin Otter was well-equipped with survival equipment, including mountain tents and supplies which could last five days. The area is experiencing heavy snow and winds of up to 170 kilometres an hour.

The missing plane’s signal came from the north end of Antarctica’s Queen Alexandra range — about halfway between the South Pole and McMurdo Station. The site is roughly four hours by helicopter from an American base at McMurdo Station. It’s a two-hour flight with a DC-3.

Authorities in Canada have been in contact with officials organizing the search in New Zealand. Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs said officials from the Canadian High Commission in Wellington are working closely with local authorities.

“Search and rescue operations are currently underway. Consular officials stand ready to provide consular services as required,” said spokeswoman Barbara Harvey.

Kenn Borek Air, which is experienced in Antarctic aviation, did not provide any details on the three crew members on board the missing twin-engine propeller aircraft.

A spokesman for the U.S. National Science Foundation — which operates an Antarctic research station helping in the search — said they were thought to be a pilot, a co-pilot and a flight engineer.

The plane was flying from the South Pole to an Italian base in Antarctica’s Terra Nova Bay. The region is in New Zealand’s area of responsibility and that country’s rescue crews have been working with U.S., Canadian and Italian authorities.

Kenn Borek Air has been in operation since 1970. According to the company’s website, 14 aircraft participated in its 2012 Antarctic season.

The company, which is also a fixture in Canada’s North, has been sending planes to Antarctica for the past 28 years.

In 2001, its pilots and planes were involved in the daring rescue of an ailing American doctor from the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

In 2009, the company was commissioned to recover an aircraft that had been involved in an accident nearly a year earlier. A 12-person Kenn Borek recovery crew spent 25 days at a remote field camp on the eastern side of the Antarctic Plateau to carry out the operation.

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