Research Plane Crashes in Antarctica

Lost. This 2006 photograph shows a Twin Otter aircraft at NSF's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

Spencer Klein/NSF

ROME—A propeller-driven aircraft flown as part of Italy's polar research program is believed to have crashed in a remote and mountainous part of Antarctica while en route from the South Pole to a research station some 1500 kilometers away on the continent's coast. According to the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development, which manages the logistics of Italy's Antarctic research program, the plane was carrying two pilots and a mechanic, all three of them Canadians. Their fate is unknown. No scientists were on board.

The Twin Otter aircraft was being transferred from the U.S. Amundsen-Scott station at the South Pole to the Mario Zucchelli base in the Terra Nova Bay so that it could be used to support Italy's scientific program, which covers research in geology, biology, and physics of the atmosphere. At about 10:00 GMT yesterday, the plane's emergency transmitter sounded. This beacon, which can be located to within just a few tens of meters, shows the plane to be stranded in the northern end of the Queen Alexandra Range of mountains, about 750 kilometers from the South Pole. The aircraft is owned and operated by Canadian company Kenn Borek Air Ltd.

Once the beacon had sounded, a U.S. LC-130 aircraft was sent to the crash site, but it was unable to establish radio contact with the Twin Otter, while a thick layer of low-lying clouds prevented those onboard from seeing the plane. Later, a DC-3 aircraft spent hours circling above the crash site, but it also came away empty-handed.

Michael Flyger, a spokesman for the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand in Wellington, which is responsible for search and rescue operations in that part of Antarctica, told ScienceInsider that it is not known whether any of the three crew members have survived. "All we know is that the beacon has been activated and that the plane hasn't returned on schedule," he says.

The weather at the crash site, which is about 4000 meters above sea level, remains very poor, with wind speeds of up to 170 kilometers an hour, a thick cloud at about 7000 meters altitude, and heavy snow. As a result, Flyger says, the DC-3 is unlikely to try again before 20:00 GMT today. Once it does take off, its job will be to survey the area to see if conditions permit helicopters or smaller aircraft to be flown in for a rescue operation.

Flyger says that if the three crew members of the Twin Otter survived the crash, there is a good chance they can make it through. "The pilot is hugely experienced in Antarctic flying," he says. "We know that the plane has enough food and water for 5 days, survival suits for three people, and an alpine tent. If they have survived the crash they can keep going for a while."