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Weather hinders search for missing plane in Antarctica

Rescuers looking for three Canadians aboard an airplane presumed to have gone down in Antarctica were grappling with bad weather conditions Wednesday, as low visibility and strong winds hampered search efforts.

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.

A spokesman for the U.S. National Science Foundation — which operates a research station helping in the search for the missing plane — said the trio aboard the aircraft are thought to be Kenn Borek crew members — 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.

“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.”

Kenn Borek Air, which is experienced in Antarctic aviation, was not able to immediately provide a comment when contacted by The Canadian Press.

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 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.

Few details were available on the condition of the missing aircraft, which began transmitting signals from its emergency locator beacon late Tuesday night.

“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., which has been in touch with the New Zealand authorities in charge of the search.

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

Houde said the beacon’s ongoing signal was right on the plane’s scheduled flight path.

The region is in New Zealand’s area of responsibility and that country’s Rescue Co-ordination Centre was organizing the search, working with U.S., Canadian and Italian authorities.

New Zealand Search and Rescue Mission Co-ordinator John Ashby said a DC3 aircraft had been flying over the site of the beacon, but heavy clouds prevented crews from searching the terrain below.

Ashby added that fixed wing aircraft and a number of helicopters were on standby, waiting for weather conditions to allow them to travel to the area where the plane was thought to have gone down.

“Weather conditions are extremely challenging,” Ashby said.

“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.”

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

Earlier, a U.S. LC-130 aircraft had flown over the source of the locator beacon’s signal, but was also unable to spot the plane due to heavy, low cloud.

The missing plane’s beacon signal is coming from the north end of Antarctica’s Queen Alexandra range, and the terrain is considered mountainous.

Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs said Wednesday that officials from the Canadian High Commission in Wellington, New Zealand, 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.

 
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