, SYDNEY, Oct 29 – Australia and the United States scrambled air force planes Friday to hunt for a French helicopter which went missing in bad weather on a remote Antarctic ice field.
Officials 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 early on Friday, while an Australian craft capable of making emergency drops was on its way to the frozen southern continent late on Friday.
"The distress beacon of the helicopter is strong, so we know where it is located," Australian Maritime Safety Authority spokeswoman (AMSA) Tracey Jiggins told AFP.
"But the weather conditions today leave almost no visibility, there is a cloud cover almost to the ground, and no radio communication has been managed until now."
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.
The emergency beacon is beaming from a spot about 100 kilometres (60 miles) 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 said. "But until communication is established though, nothing is certain."
The Royal Australian Air Force AP3 Orion aircraft, which is capable of dropping emergency supplies, was headed to the site late on Friday.
The Australian Antarctic Division ship Aurora Australis was also diverted to help the search but was still several days\’ sail away.
AMSA expressed hoped that weather conditions would clear on Saturday, making it possible to send another helicopter from the Astrolabe ship to pick up the stricken Frenchmen.