Sad end to Antarctic search and rescue

Safe Seas Clean Seas Issue 43, April 2013

The Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) had a high-profile start to the year with the coordination in January of the search for three Canadian men missing in the Antarctic.

The men’s Twin Otter aircraft had been en route from the South Pole to an Italian base at Terra Nova Bay, northwest of McMurdo Station. The plane had not maintained communications as scheduled, and late in the evening of 23 January, its emergency locator transmitter (ELT) was activated.

“The aircraft couldn’t have been in a more treacherous or remote area,” said RCCNZ Operations Manager John Seward. “The location was at a height of approximately 4,000m (13,000ft) at the northern end of the Queen Alexandra Range, which is about 720km south of McMurdo Station.”

Bad weather hampered search efforts for some days, with winds in excess of 170km/hr, heavy snow, and visibility badly affected by thick cloud. However, the men were very well-equipped, with alpine tents, survival suits, and enough food and water for five days, so hopes remained they would be found alive.

There was considerable interest from both New Zealand and Canadian media, with MNZ’s communications team receiving approximately 450 calls over the first three days of the operation.

“It was extremely frustrating for the rescue crews, who were standing by at McMurdo waiting for the weather to break. It’s not a nice feeling knowing there are people out there who need your help, but conditions mean it’s impossible to provide it.”

Once the weather cleared three days after the first beacon alert, a forward operating base was able to be set up around 50km from the site by Antarctica New Zealand and the United States Antarctic Program.

At that point, an overflight by a United States LC-130 (ski-equipped) Hercules identified the tail of the aircraft, which had clearly made a high-speed impact near the summit of Mt Elizabeth. A helicopter was then able to reach the site and it was assessed the crash was not survivable.

“A number of people put a lot of time and effort and emotional energy into this operation, and right up until we received word from the search teams, we were working with the hope that we would find them alive. Our thoughts are with the families and friends of those lost,” said John.

A recovery operation will be attempted by Canadian authorities after the winter season.

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