Research plane missing over desolate arctic ice


ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- A wildlife research plane has disappeared over the Arctic Ocean and a search was launched Friday over the forbidding polar ice north of Alaska, federal officials reported.

The chartered U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service airplane vanished about 250 miles northwest of Point Barrow, said Bruce Batten, a spokesman for the agency. Point Barrow is the northernmost point of land in the United States.


The plane, carrying a pilot and two polar bear specialists from the Fish and Wildlife Service, left the Deadhorse airport at Prudhoe Bay at 2:30p.m. Thursday and failed to return as scheduled at 8 p.m.

The search Friday involved two Coast Guard C-130 aircraft, two federal wildlife agency planes, an Arco plane from Prudhoe Bay and other aircraft, according to the government agencies and the oil company.

Searchers received some surprise help from an Air Force radar plane involved in an intercept of a Soviet aircraft, Batten said. An Air Force Airborne Warning and Control System plane tracking a Soviet aircraft flying over the arctic also picked up the wildlife research plane on radar, moving north toward the polar icepack.


But the AWACS plane stopped its radar tracking after two Air Force F- 15s steered the Soviet Tu-134 aircraft northeast back towards Siberia. However, the radar data was the first solid information placing the wildlife plane over ice, 250 miles northwest of Barrow at 4 p.m., Batten said, noting that this helped narrow the search area.

The polar bear biologists were identified as John Bevins, 35, and George Menkens, 33, and the pilot was Clifford Minch, 40, all of Anchorage.

Coast Guard planes flew 1,000 miles north from their Kodiak Island base to reach Barrow for refueling before heading out over arctic seas where the search could extend as far as 400 miles northwest of Point Barrow, Coast Guard spokesman Mike Milliken said from Juneau.

Coast Guard spokesman Ed Moreth said the search might be the farthest north a search and rescue mission has been undertaken by the Coast Guard.

Searchers were flying over open arctic seas and along the edge of the permanent polar ice cap where the wildlife team was tracking radio- collared female polar bears and their cubs in a long-term population and productivity study, Batten said. He said the plane flew at an altitude of 400 feet to spot polar bears.


'There is no relief out there other than jumbled ice,' said Batten, who has flown on polar bear research projects himself. 'It is such a huge, wide, flat area. There are no landmarks, just an open flat area.'

The long-range twin-engine Aero Commander, flown by an experienced pilot, had plenty of survival gear aboard, Batten said. But he said if the the plane went down on its return trip in the 60 miles of open water between the arctic coast and the polar ice, chances of survival were nil. The plane was not equipped with skis or floats, only wheels.

The plane carried two emergency locator transmitters, but no signal has been picked up, Milliken said. The plane also carried survival suits, two weeks of food rations and a life raft.

When the wildlife plane took off Thursday afternoon, weather was good, but thick clouds came down about an hour before the plane was due back, reducing visibility to one-eighth of a mile, Batten said. Milliken said visibility Friday was five miles with light blowing snow and temperatures in the 20s.

The search was to resume Saturday.

As for the Soviet plane, a twin turbofan cargo aircraft on an unknown mission, it flew to within 32 miles of Cape Lisburbe on the northwest coast of Alaska. The Soviet plane, a so-called 'Crusty,' did not penetrate American airspace, but triggered the Air Force response when it entered a buffer area known as the U.S. Air Defense Identification Zone.


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