The Coast Guard has located the sunken helicopter that crashed in the frigid waters of the Northwest Passage this month and is fighting subzero temperatures and growing ice floes in an attempt to recover the aircraft.
The Transportation Safety Board, which is probing the crash that killed a Coast Guard icebreaker captain and two other men, announced the development Tuesday morning. The copter was found 457 metres beneath the surface of McClure Strait off Banks Island, Northwest Territories.
Investigators want to examine the engines, transmission, instruments and the fuselage to help unravel the mystery of why the aircraft plunged into the frigid Arctic waters on Sept. 9.
The Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen lost its commanding officer, Marc Thibault, in the crash, along with veteran Coast Guard pilot Daniel Dubé and scientist Klaus Hochheim. The men were scouting the sea ice to determine the best route for the Amundsen, which was hosting a research expedition and carrying scientists taking measurements of the Arctic environment.
The Transportation Safety Board said a remotely operated underwater vehicle found the helicopter Monday and it released images of the aircraft lying upside down on the sea floor. The copter appears to be torn open.
Two icebreakers – the Amundsen and Henry Larsen – began efforts Tuesday to raise the aircraft in what may be one of the northernmost salvage operations ever attempted in Canada.
"The ice and weather conditions will continue to present a significant challenge to the recovery operation," the TSB said in statement.
"While the aim is to recover the helicopter as quickly as possible, ensuring the safety of the personnel and vessels involved in this operation is a first priority."
Two icebreakers allow one to focus on raising the copter and the other to protect the first from moving ice floes. One source familiar with the operation said those on the scene had to contend with a sheet of ice that measured about three kilometres by five kilometres, which made it harder to conduct the salvage.
"The ice itself is moving and sometimes there's too much around the area they want to operate, but they're doing their best," TSB investigator Jean-Marc Ledoux said in an interview.
The crash occurred in an especially remote part of the Arctic, about 670 kilometres west of Resolute, Nunavut.
A preliminary autopsy released last week suggests the three men likely survived the impact of the crash, but died of hypothermia as a result of being immersed in the frigid Arctic waters.
The findings appear to rule out the possibility the pilot had been struck by a sudden health problem – such as a heart attack – that might have led to the crash.
The salvage operation is racing against time as cooling fall weather leads to thickening ice cover. If the icebreakers return home empty handed, it may be too late to try again next year because salt-water corrosion could erase clues investigators need to sort out what happened.
The last contact the Amundsen had with the helicopter on Sept. 9 was when it radioed that it was about 10 to 15 minutes away from the ship and on a return flight.
The fact that the helicopter sent no distress messages before it crashed has many in the Arctic research community puzzling over what happened.
People familiar with the Amundsen expedition say there was no discussion of mechanical problems with the aircraft in the weeks before it crashed.
All Coast Guard copters were briefly grounded after the incident. "As is common practice following an accident of this nature, the whole fleet of Coast Guard helicopters was temporarily grounded as a precaution following the accident. However, the fleet was fully returned to service as of Sept. 16," Ashley Kelahear, press secretary to Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, said.