Bad weather hampers search for Canadians missing in Antarctica

Severe winds and heavy snow continued to hamper the search for three Canadians aboard an airplane missing in Antarctica as rescue crews on standby braced for hours of more bad 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.

While the plane’s emergency locator beacon continued to emit signals, rescue crews were unable to establish any radio contact with the trio on board the aircraft.

“Weather is hampering things at the moment,” said Steve Rendle, a spokesman with New Zealand’s Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Wellington, which was organizing the search.

“The winds are extreme, we are told the snow conditions are getting heavier and that’s preventing the helicopters and the Twin Otter (search) aircraft from heading down.”

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 the trio aboard the plane was thought to be a pilot, a co-pilot and a flight engineer.

“My understanding is that it was just the flight crew and no passengers,” said Peter West, who is based in Arlington, Va., and had been in touch with crews in Antarctica.

The plane was flying from the South Pole to an Italian base in Antarctica’s Terra Nova Bay when its emergency beacon went off en route.

The region is in New Zealand’s area of responsibility and that country’s rescue crews were working with U.S., Canadian and Italian authorities.

“The flight was under the auspices of the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development,” said West. “That’s who the flight was in support of.”

Some Canadians discussing the incident on Twitter identified Kenn Borek pilot Bob Heath as one of those on board the missing plane. Calls to his residence in Inuvik, N.W.T, were referred to the airline.

“Fingers crossed bigtime for friend Bob Heath – pilot of missing Kenn Borek Twin Otter down in Antarctic…25+ years experience extreme flying,” tweeted one person.

“Bob is an amazing pilot and a wonderful man. If anyone can get through this it’s him,” tweeted another.

The missing airplane began transmitting signals from its emergency locator beacon early Wednesday.

A U.S. LC-130 aircraft was soon sent to the area where the signal was coming from but was unable to spot the missing plane due to heavy, low cloud.

Later on Wednesday, about 16 hours after the plane went missing, a DC-3 aircraft spent hours over the same site, hoping to catch a glimpse of the downed plane or the crew, but thick clouds again prevented a search of the terrain below.

Rendle said the DC-3 aircraft spent around five hours circling overhead, but has since returned to McMurdo Base, and with the weather not expected to improve in the next 12 hours, it was unclear when the plane might return to the scene.

The Rescue Co-ordination Centre said there is solid cloud cover in the area, high winds of up to 170 kilometres an hour and heavy snow.

Fixed wing aircraft and helicopters from New Zealand and the U.S. were on standby at McMurdo Station, an American research facility, ready to take to the skies as soon as the weather allowed.

“Conditions are forecast to worsen with snow becoming heavier. However, when weather conditions allow, a joint New Zealand and U.S. field rescue team is ready to go,” said John Ashby, New Zealand Search and Rescue Mission Co-ordinator.

The plane carrying the three Canadians was equipped with survival equipment, he said, including mountain tents and supplies which could last five days.

The site from where the plane’s beacon is emitting signals is approximately four hours away from McMurdo Station by helicopter and a two hour flight by the DC-3 aircraft.

Crews were hoping conditions would improve enough in the next few hours for them to establish a forward operating base at an unmanned station located some 50 kilometres from the beacon’s signal.

That base could then provide a co-ordination point from where search planes and helicopters could scour the terrain in the constant Antarctic daylight that is currently a bonus for rescue crews.

The missing plane’s signal is coming from the north end of Antarctica’s Queen Alexandra range _ about halfway between the South Pole and McMurdo Station _ and the terrain is considered mountainous.

Authorities in Canada were in contact with officials organizing the search in New Zealand Wednesday, but had few details to offer when it came to those on board the Canadian plane.

“We don’t know exactly what’s happening other than that the beacon is still transmitting,” said Capt. Jean Houde of the Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Trenton, Ont..

“We don’t know the condition of the people on board.”

Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs said officials from the Canadian High Commission in Wellington were 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 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.