Biplane sinks at North Pole, rescue underway

Posted: Tuesday, May 16, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Five people aboard a Russian-designed biplane were stranded Monday when the plane landed at the North Pole and sank through the ice.

The Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center in Juneau was alerted at 10:46 a.m. that the group, which included three Alaskans, needed help, said Lt. Kevin Dunn, who was helping arrange a rescue with Canadian officials.

Everyone aboard the plane was able to get off safely and had enough gear to camp out on the ice for about a week, he said.

''They are stuck at the North Pole. They have survival equipment and they're OK,'' Dunn said.

The group was stranded about a mile north of the North Pole on the North American side. The temperature at the time was about zero degrees.

The Canadian Coast Guard's Rescue Coordination Center in Trenton, Nova Scotia, arranged for a commercial plane to pick up the stranded adventurers. The Twin Otter left Resolute, Canada, at mid-afternoon and would have to refuel once during the nine-hour flight. It was expected to reach the group about midnight.

The five aboard the An-2 biplane were traveling with two people aboard a single-engine Cessna 185 when the mishap occurred.

The five were identified as Ron Sheardown, John Pletcher, and Jim Bowden, of Anchorage; Dick Rutan from Mojave, Calif., and Jan Haugsad of Norway. Rutan made history in December 1986 when he completed a nine-day, around-the-world, nonstop flight without refueling.

The planes left Anchorage last Monday and stopped in Fairbanks before heading to the North Pole. They arrived Thursday and spent about an hour on the ice, before setting off for Spitsbergen, Norway. They spent three nights in Spitsbergen before heading back to the North Pole.

''We can't claim to be on a scientific expedition,'' said Lee Wareham, the Cessna pilot. ''We just felt like going to the North Pole.''

Wareham was able to land his small plane and take off again before the ice began breaking up. The larger plane couldn't get turned around in time for takeoff before it began sinking. Wareham and his passenger, Walt Parker of Anchorage, then flew on to Deadhorse where they planned to spend the night.

Wareham, through a ham radio operator, talked to The Associated Press.

''Everybody is fine,'' he said. ''The airplane is slowly sinking. The ice is breaking up.''

Wareham's initial call for help was to a ham radio operator in Fairbanks who alerted the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center in Anchorage, who called the Coast Guard's Command Center in Juneau.

The Alaska Air National Guard was sending a plane to the scene to help with communications. The plane would help pinpoint the location for the Canadian plane and evaluate the strength of the ice. Parajumpers were aboard if needed, said guard spokeswoman Kerre Martineau.

Wareham said this was not the group's first trip to the North Pole. In 1998, the group successfully retraced a 1928 trans-Arctic flight by Sir George Hubert Wilkins and Alaska pioneer aviator Ben Eielson.

''We tried to go in 1997 and had some technical problems,'' Wareham said. The following year five planes made it to the North Pole and last year one plane made it.

Wareham was relieved when told a rescue plane had been dispatched.

''The good guys are on the way,'' he said.

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