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Canadian songstress on Air Canada rescue flight: 'Scary'

An Air Canada Boeing 777 is refuelled at Sydney airport in this July 28, 2011 file photo. Thanks to extra fuel left on their plane and a pair of binoculars from a passenger, the crew of an Air Canada jetliner helped in the rescue of a sailor adrift in the South Pacific.

Tim Wimborne/Reuters

It was almost the end of a long, uneventful Pacific crossing for the 270 passengers aboard Air Canada flight AC033 to Sydney when an electrifying announcement came on the public address system.

Vancouver folk singer and Juno Award-nominated Jill Barber, who was aboard the plane, expected a pre-landing announcement.

Instead, she said she heard the captain say: "Ladies and gentlemen, we've received a call from search and rescue teams in Australia saying that there was a yacht that was sinking off the shore of Sydney. We're the closest aircraft in the vicinity, and they've asked us to identify the location of the boat. It's going to mean a slight detour."

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Thanks to extra fuel left on their plane and a pair of binoculars from a passenger, the crew of the Air Canada jetliner was credited with assisting in the rescue Monday of an Australian yacht adrift in the South Pacific.

Flight AC033, which had left Vancouver about 12 hours earlier, was contacted by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority after an emergency beacon signal was detected around 8:15 a.m. Monday.

After making sure there was enough fuel, the crew of the Boeing 777 descended from an altitude of 7,500 metres to just 1,800 metres, said Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick.

Ms. Barber recalled there was a heightened sense of nervousness in the cabin.

"Anything out of the ordinary on a long flight like that, over the ocean, can make your heart race a little bit. So everybody was a little concerned, but also, rolling with it," she said in an interview from Australia.

The pilot asked if anyone had a pair of binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens that could be brought to the cockpit.

The massive jetliner began circling around. "It was a little bit scary .... It felt like we were flying just above the water. We had a pretty good view, and they were tipping the plane side to side to maximise the view," Ms. Barber said.

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Everyone on the jetliner cheered after they were told the white yacht had been located and a rescue plane was on its way, she said.

The yacht was about 500 kilometres east of Sydney, the Australian maritime authority said.

An Air New Zealand Airbus 320 en route to Sydney from Auckland was also later diverted to the area and eventually an Australian Dornier rescue plane arrived and dropped a life raft and a satellite phone.

The solo yachtsman had left the Sydney area two weeks ago but for the past week had been drifting away after losing his mast and running low on fuel.

A container ship, the ANL Benalla, reached the yacht to shield it from the strong winds until the New South Wales police patrol boat Nemesis arrived from Sydney to pick up the sailor.

The Air Canada flight had to travel an extra 400 kilometres and landed in Sydney about 90 minutes behind schedule, but aiding in the rescue was not the main cause of the delay. Most of the extra time was spent on an earlier diversion for weather, Mr. Fitzpatrick said. "We're really pleased we could help," he said.

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Local officials said they seldom enlist the help of jetliners because they rarely deal with incidents so remote that they would only have to rely on commercial airlines, a spokeswoman told Australian media.

"The Boeing 777 was the closest asset available to us," Jo Mehan told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

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