A Canadian plane that crashed in Antarctica appears to have been on course but may have turned too early while flying through a mountain range, says an official with the agency that confirms the aircraft has been found.
Chris Henshaw, a search and rescue officer with the New Zealand Rescue Co-Ordination Centre, says the wreckage of the Twin Otter lies along the route the plane was intending to fly between the South Pole and an Italian base in Antarctica’s Terra Nova Bay.
The plane, operated by Calgary-based Kenn Borek Air, was reported missing after it failed to reach its destination on Wednesday.
Search crews in aircraft have confirmed that the wreckage has been sighted on a steep slope near the summit of Mount Elizabeth on the Queen Alexandra range, but New Zealand officials said the impact appears to have been direct and would not have been survivable for the three crew members on board.
“From looking at the maps, it is a logical route for it to fly through the mountain range,” Henshaw said about the location of the crash.
“There is a path that they actually sort of follow through. And it looks like the pilot made a turn too early. We don’t know at this stage,” he added.
New Zealand officials say the next of kin of the three men have been informed.
The pilot has been identified by friends as Bob Heath of Inuvik while media reports have identified a second crew member as Mike Denton, a newlywed from Calgary whose photographs of planes appear on the Kenn Borek website.
The third crew member had not yet been identified.
According to a statement released Friday by Kenn Borek Air, helicopter crews and mountain rescue personnel were to attempt to access the crash site on Saturday if weather conditions were favourable.
Henshaw said the weather in the area has improved and it sounded like a helicopter would be capable of landing close to the site. But he said he was still awaiting word on a decision about how they would proceed.
A news release from the New Zealand Rescue Co-ordination Centre says the recovery effort will be led by the Unified Incident Command, which is a joint unit of the United States Antarctica Programme and Antarctica New Zealand’s incident management unit.
The release says the mission is expected to be difficult. The site is at an elevation of 3,900 metres, although weather conditions in the area are currently good with light winds and scattered cloud.
The intention is to return the men’s bodies to New Zealand and repatriate them to Canada, the news release states.
Diane Ablonczy, minister of state of foreign affairs, issued a statement Saturday saying she was saddened by the crash and offering condolences to the families of the three Canadians.
“On behalf of Canada, I sincerely thank the New Zealand, U.S., Italian and civilian search and rescue teams for the valiant efforts they have made over the last several days to locate the missing plane,” her statement said.
“Canadian officials will continue to work closely with local authorities in New Zealand and stand ready to provide any needed consular assistance to the families.”
Julie Leroux of the Transportation Safety Board said that since the Twin Otter was operated by a Canadian company, officials here have already started working on a probe into the crash.
Leroux said Canadian investigators have collected data and conducted interviews, but she said they don’t know yet whether it will be possible to reach the remote crash site.
“The Transportation Safety Board is waiting for more information to determine our next step,” Leroux said Saturday, speaking from Gatineau, Que., where the board is based.
An emergency locator beacon had been detected coming from the crash site early on, but rescue teams were hampered by bad weather that made it difficult for planes flying over the area to see anything.
On Friday, a break in the weather allowed rescuers to set up a forward base at Beardmore Glacier, about 50 kilometres from the crash site, where there is a landing strip and a fuel depot.
A statement on the Kenn Borek Air website said visual contact with the wreckage was first made by a C-130 Hercules aircraft of the New York Air National Guard, and the sighting was later confirmed by another Twin Otter deployed by the airline.
Kenn Borek Air, which is also a fixture in Canada’s North, has been sending planes to Antarctica for the past 28 years.
Heath has been described as a highly experienced pilot by friends.
Fellow pilot Sebastian Seykora said Heath had been flying in Antarctica for at least a decade.