Plane in polar landing doesn't sink, rescue planned

Posted: Thursday, May 25, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- When last we left the North Pole, five adventurers were waving goodbye to their airplane, which was mired wing-deep in soft ice and slowly sinking to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.

But then last week's hard-luck tale took an unexpected turn -- the plane refused to succumb to an all-but-certain fate.

Anchorage pilot Ron Sheardown, who owns the Antonov-2 biplane, said his property is firmly frozen into drifting ice at the top of the world. He's trying to put together a rescue.

''We think it's in there good enough that we can make a run up there and get it out,'' he said Tuesday.

Obstacles are many, with time and money leading the list.

Sheardown said any effort to liberate the Russian-designed, Polish-built aircraft would have to be wrapped up within a couple of weeks because the ice is moving away from the pole.

And, he said, salvation won't come cheap.

''The plane is worth $150,000,'' he said. ''That's probably what it would take (to recover it).''

Sheardown and his companions had to be rescued from the North Pole on May 16 after the Antonov-2 dropped through unexpectedly weak ice while landing to do some sightseeing.

The men -- among them Dick Rutan, who co-piloted the first flight around the world without stopping or refueling -- were stranded at the pole for about 12 hours before being picked up by a plane dispatched from northern Canada.

As they flew away, the 10,000-pound plane was steadily sinking through the ice under its own weight. They were sure it was heading to its final resting place under 13,000 feet of ocean.

But in the remote Canadian outpost of Resolute, the men met a pair of British marines who'd finished a 10-week marathon hike to the pole only hours after the Sheardown group was airlifted out.

The bedraggled marines said they were shocked to see the Antonov lying there, according to Rutan.

''They said, 'My God, the plane sent to get us crashed!''' Rutan said from his home in Mojave, Calif. Reddish flare residue on the ice looked like blood to their exhausted eyes.

The marines' plane soon arrived and its pilot checked out the Antonov. He noticed some sea water had flowed up on top of the ice and covered the biplane's lower wings before freezing, Sheardown said. The plane had been fused to the ice.

When he heard that his plane wasn't a goner, Sheardown started thinking rescue.

''We need to get a plane capable of getting there, and it has to have skis,'' he said. ''We need planking, airbags and a tripod for lifting. We probably need a couple of tons of gear.''

The idea is to erect the tripod over the Antonov, hitch the plane to it with cables and gradually free the ice-locked wings. Then they would slowly inflate the airbags under the plane, lifting it inch by inch until it was clear of the ice.

Sheardown said he's talking to Russian and Canadian outfits experienced in polar operations, but hasn't lined up anything yet. Rutan says he's using his connections to try to shake loose some sponsorship money.

''I'm beating the bushes to find a documentary-film crew to help fund it and have kind of an exclusive,'' he said.

Another big problem for any rescue effort is keeping track of the plane's location. The polar ice can move several miles in a day.

Sheardown said the plane's position could be monitored by polar-orbiting satellites. But that view is not shared by a leading scientist in the field.

''I'd tell him 'Your chances are remote,''' said Roger DeAbreu, science projects manager at the Canadian Ice Service in Ottawa. ''It's fair to call it a needle in a haystack.''

Most of the satellites can't see through the clouds that cover the North Pole nearly all of the time, DeAbreu said. There are two satellites aloft that use cloud-penetrating technology, but at least one of them doesn't fly directly over the pole, he said.

If Sheardown could calculate the circulation pattern for that particular chunk of ice since the crash, DeAbreu said, he might be able to make a rough guess at its position.

That assumes, he said, that the plane-bearing ice doesn't break apart and dump its cargo into the sea or that the plane isn't crushed in a collision between ice slabs.

Sheardown understands he's undertaking an expensive gamble, but rates his chances higher than does DeAbreu.

''I'd say it's 50-50,'' he said. ''But it's worth a shot.''

Reporter T.A. Badger can be reached at tbadgerap.org.



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