Five rescued after plane sinks at North Pole

Posted: Wednesday, May 17, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Five adventurers, among them aviation legend Dick Rutan, have been rescued from the North Pole after their Russian-designed biplane broke through drifting ice and sank to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.

A DeHavilland Twin Otter dispatched from Resolute, Nunavut, Canada picked up the men at about 11 p.m. Monday, Coast Guard officials in Juneau said Tuesday.

They were taken to a Canadian government outpost in the Queen Elizabeth Islands, about 700 miles south of the pole. Another plane chartered by their families was scheduled to bring the men back to Alaska, where the journey began last week.

The travelers, none of whom were injured, spent about 12 hours at the top of the world before being retrieved. Conditions were mild by polar standards -- a little above zero degrees and calm winds, said Coast Guard spokesman Darrell Wilson.

Best of all, Wilson said, was the 24-hour daylight that made the rescue easier.

''Being able to perform a mission like this in daylight is better than trying to do something like this in the dark,'' he said.

The five were identified as Rutan of Mojave, Calif.; Ron Sheardown, John Pletcher and Jim Bowden, all of Anchorage; and Jan Haugsad of Norway. They were aboard Sheardown's single-engine Antonov An-2 biplane traveling with a smaller Cessna 185 with two people aboard.

Rutan became famous in 1986 as one of the two-person crew who made the first flight around the world without stopping or refueling.

He told KTUU-TV that he wasn't too worried about being stuck on the ice.

''The people I was with were very highly experienced and highly skilled in arctic flying and arctic survival,'' he said from the Canadian weather station via a ham radio connection.

The planes left Anchorage on May 8 and stopped in Fairbanks and Barrow en route to the North Pole. They arrived Thursday and spent a short time on the ice before setting off for Spitsbergen, Norway.

They spent the weekend in Spitsbergen before heading back to Alaska. On the way, they decided to put down at the pole again.

''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.''

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

Wareham landed his small plane and took off again Monday before the ice began breaking up. The larger biplane couldn't get turned around in time for takeoff before it began sinking.

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

''They were very well-prepared,'' Wilson said. ''They were the perfect people for that to happen to.''

The four-year-old plane went down in more than 13,000 feet of water, said Coast Guard Lt. Ray Massey in Juneau.

Wareham and his passenger, Walt Parker of Anchorage, flew back to Alaska. Wareham's initial call for help was to a ham radio operator in Fairbanks who alerted authorities Monday morning.

The Coast Guard contacted Canadian rescue officials in Nova Scotia, who arranged the polar pickup with First Air, a commercial air carrier with services out of Resolute.

Air Force Lt. Paul Doucette, a Canadian rescue spokesman in Trenton, Ontario, said Tuesday that, while the men were equipped for a long stay, a speedy response was a mission priority.

''We had to find the quickest way possible to get up and get them out,'' Doucette said. ''It was really more of a pick-up than a rescue.''

Doucette said he spoke by phone to the men early Tuesday.

''They seemed to be in good shape and seemed glad to be taken out of there and put in a safer spot,'' he said.

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