Helicopter pilot rescued from Arctic ice floe tells tale of survival

'I was on the edge,' says Russian pilot Sergey Ananov of his fraught 32 hours stranded on an Arctic ice floe

IQALUIT, Nunavut – A Russian helicopter pilot who spent more than 30 hours on an ice floe after ditching his small helicopter into frigid Arctic waters says he’s not sure he would have survived much longer had searchers not seen his remaining warning flare.

Sergey Ananov, 49, was on a solo, around-the-world journey in his single-engine aircraft and was about halfway between Iqaluit and Greenland when his Robinson R22 helicopter went down in the Davis Strait on Saturday afternoon.

Speaking via satellite phone from the coast guard vessel Pierre Radisson following his rescue Monday, Ananov related a tale that involved quick thinking, a visit from three inquisitive polar bears and a fortunate break in the weather.

“I was on the edge,” said Ananov of his condition when he was rescued. “Luckily for one or two hours the fog disappeared.”

Ananov said his helicopter went down after one of two rubber belts leading from the engine to the rotor exploded. He said he was able to partially pull on his survival suit and scramble into a small life raft before the aircraft sank in a matter of about 30 seconds.

It was then a short, cold swim to an ice floe.

Ananov said the raft provided his only means of shelter as he waited to be rescued, a prospect that proved difficult with thick fog and a low ceiling in the area.

At one point he fired one of his three flares as a Canadian military Hercules aircraft flew overhead.

“It was absolutely useless because they couldn’t see anything,” he said.

Ananov said the same thing happened when an aircraft approached for a second time.

“So I spent another day on the ice trembling, freezing and struggling … to think, to manoeuvre.”

Ananov said at one point he was approached by three polar bears that got to within a metre of him. He said he waited and then managed to chase them off by acting as aggressively as he could to startle the animals.

“They had never seen a creature dressed with a red survival suit … with two legs, two arms waving and roaring. It was like a red devil.”

He said the bears jumped into the water and swam to a nearby floe.

As Ananov struggled with the conditions with no food and water, the search — which had been triggered after picking up a beacon on board the helicopter — began to close in.

Capt. Stephane Julien, commanding officer of the Pierre Radisson, said fog and ice conditions hindered progress and his vessel took 25 hours to reach the area of the crash site.

He said visibility was poor Sunday until conditions suddenly cleared and he decided to use the ship’s helicopter.

It was the noise of the aircraft that alerted Ananov who set off his last flare.

“My third officer, from the corner of her eye, she saw a flare on the ice,” said Julien. “We took a bearing and called the helicopter.”

Julien said Ananov was found in “good shape” despite his 32-hour ordeal. He said he believes his vessel would have found Ananov without the flare, but probably not until sometime Monday morning.

“The flare made the difference,” said Julien.

He said the Pierre Radisson was expected to sail into Iqaluit sometime Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Rear Admiral John Newton said Ananov’s flight was risky even by military standards.

“When we fly our big Cormorant search and rescue, multi-engine helicopters over the ocean, we fly a Hercules (plane) on top to make sure our helicopter is safe,” he said during an interview at the search and rescue centre in Halifax.

The admiral said the military search centre worked on the assumption that Ananov was alive throughout the rescue attempt, but knew that heaving oceans and extreme cold posed risks as the hours went by.

— With files from Keith Doucette and Michael Tutton in Halifax.

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