N. Pole rescue saves 5 lives

Biplane sinks through ice

Posted: Tuesday, May 16, 2000

ANCHORAGE - Five people, including famed aviator Dick Rutan, were rescued from the North Pole after their Russian-designed biplane sank through the ice, a Coast Guard spokesman said early today.

Canadian and U.S. Coast Guard officials were first alerted Monday night that the five were stranded. A commercially hired deHavilland Twin Otter picked them up about 11:15 p.m. and took them to Eureka, Nunavut, Canada, a small settlement in the Queen Elizabeth Islands west of Greenland.

All five were uninjured and in good condition, said Coast Guard Quartermaster 1st Class Dan Pesnell in Juneau.

The plane arrived about 5:30 a.m. EDT in Eureka, Canadian officials said. Another plane, hired by the families of the five, was being sent to take them from Eureka to Alaska, Pesnell said.

The An-2 biplane they had been flying apparently sank through the broken ice and could not be salvaged, he added.

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

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

The Canadian Coast Guard's Rescue Coordination Center in Trenton, Nova Scotia, arranged the rescue by the Twin Otter, which left Resolute, Canada, at mid-afternoon and had to refuel once during the nine-hour flight.

A single-engine Cessna 185 with two people aboard accompanied the An-2 biplane and managed to get off the ice before it started breaking up. The larger plane couldn't get turned around in time for takeoff before it began sinking.

``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 and his passenger, Walt Parker of Anchorage, flew on to Deadhorse to spend the night.

Everyone aboard the An-2 got off safely and had enough gear to camp out on the ice for about a week. They were about a mile from the North Pole on the North American side. The temperature at the time was about zero degrees.

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

The Alaska Air National Guard sent a plane to the scene to help with communications, and parajumpers were aboard if needed, spokeswoman Kerre Martineau said.

The An-2 and the Cessna left Anchorage on May 8, stopped in Fairbanks, arrived Thursday at the North Pole and spent about an hour on the ice before setting off for Spitsbergen, Norway. They spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday night in Spitsbergen before returning to the North Pole.

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.

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