Wreckage spotted in search for French helicopter

29th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

An Australian air force plane searching for four Frenchmen missing on an Antarctic ice field spotted what is believed to be the wreckage of their helicopter Friday, the maritime authority said.

The AP3 Orion plane reported seeing debris consistent with the missing helicopter about 100 kilometres (62 miles) from the Dumont d'Urville base in Antarctica, an Australian Maritime Safety Authority statement said.

"The RAAF aircraft has reported that there appears to be a field of wreckage and that there are no signs that anyone has survived the impact of the crash," the statement said.

Officials had earlier detected a distress beacon but the intercontinental rescue effort was unable to sight the chopper in heavy cloud or make radio contact with the aircraft.

A New Zealand-based US plane flew over the zone early on Friday, while the Australian aircraft capable of making emergency drops made its way to the frozen southern continent late on Friday.

Australian Maritime Safety Authority spokeswoman (AMSA) Tracey Jiggins told AFP bad weather had left almost no visibility, with cloud cover almost to the ground.

The AS350 Squirrel helicopter, which has been missing since late Thursday, was carrying four Frenchmen -- the pilot, a mechanic and two staff from Dumont d'Urville research base in the French Southern and Antarctic Lands.

It had taken off from a ship, the Astrolabe, that helps supply the station, although details of its destination were not immediately available.

An emergency beacon was detected transmitting from a spot about 100 kilometres from the base and 280 kilometres from the vessel, which is off the edge of the icefield.

AMSA said the helicopter was last observed at an altitude of just 29 feet (10 metres), travelling at only 20 knots (37 kilometres per hour).

It is equipped with enough emergency food, Arctic clothing and medical supplies to last the crew at least a few days, despite temperatures between minus 1 and minus 12 degrees Celsius (30 and 10 F).

"As it was flying low and slowly, we hope that they decided to land because they couldn't see," Jiggins had said before the latest announcement on debris being spotted.

The Australian Antarctic Division ship Aurora Australis has been diverted to help the search but was remains several days' sail away.

AMSA hoped weather conditions would clear on Saturday, making it possible to send another helicopter from the Astrolabe ship to continue the search.

© 2010 AFP

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