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100-mph winds ground search for plane missing in Antarctica

A plane carrying three Canadians has gone missing in Antarctica. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

(Editor's note: This story includes a correction.)

Howling winds and snow grounded an effort Thursday to find a small plane missing in a mountainous area of Antarctica for more than two days, rescuers said.

The twin-engine plane, carrying three Canadian crew members, was about an hour into a flight from the U.S.-run Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station to an Italian research station at Terra Nova Bay, when its emergency beacon was heard by rescue officials in Wellington, New Zealand, at about 10 p.m. local time Wednesday (4 a.m. ET)

The company that owns the plane, Kenn Borek Air Ltd. of Calgary, Alberta, said it was "maintaining a respectful silence" until the fate of the plane and its crew was known.

The Calgary Sun newspaper identified one of those aboard the plane as Bob Heath of the Northwest Territories, calling him a "star pilot" for Kenn Borek Air.


A file photo shows a twin-engine Otter, the type of plane missing in Antarctica with three Canadians aboard.

The newspaper quoted Heath’s wife Lucy Heath as saying she was “worried” and “waiting for news.”

A search plane spent about five hours circling over the site of the beacon, which is in a mountainous area, but heavy cloud cover hampered the search and then the weather got worse, officials said.

Winds have topped 100 mph and it was also snowing, Michael Flyger, spokesman for New Zealand’s Rescue Coordination Center, said.

He added he hoped the next weather forecast "will bring good news,” enabling the search to continue.

Five-day water supply
The beacon’s signal is coming from an area about 11,000 feet above sea level, Flyger said.

"It’s pretty mountainous terrain. It’s impossible to say whether it crashed or made an emergency landing or they had a mechanical problem and had to ditch the plane," he said. "At the moment we have a plane that’s not where it should be and a locator beacon is going off."

The beacon can be switched on manually, but it also would begin transmitting if sensors detected a crash, Flyger said.

Despite the conditions in the area, there may be reason for optimism, he added.

"We do know that onboard the aircraft there was a significant amount of survival equipment — heavy-duty mountain tents, enough water for three people for five days,” he said. “They’ve certainly got the equipment to look after themselves."

The National Science Foundation, which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, said the plane was flying in support of Italian Antarctic research.

Searchers from the United States, Italy and Canada are assisting in New Zealand's efforts and have helicopters and airplanes ready to return to the site, Flyger said, adding that the the ideal scenario would be for a helicopter to either land or use a winch to bring up survivors.

"If conditions are good enough, hopefully we can land a short distance away and the team will walk to the crash site," he said.  "There’s some frustration that the weather has been the way it’s been. The searchers are very keen to get in and crack on with the job."

"We’re very aware that not only are there people out there who need our help, but there are people ... wanting to know what’s going on. We hope to be able to give some good news."


Plane with 3 on board missing near South Pole