To shave time off long-haul flights, airlines eye North Pole

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You might call them an "over the top" solution to the problems of really long international flights: Carriers are introducing polar air routes on long hauls such as Toronto-Hong Kong.

Transpolar routes minimize distance, headwinds, and therefore fuel requirements - and this means savings of time and money for airlines and their passengers. Five hours are shaved off a Toronto-Hong Kong run when it goes over the North Pole, for instance.

But what happens in case of an emergency at the top of the world? Is the Arctic ready for the increased risk that, statistically speaking, accompanies an increase in transpolar commercial air traffic?

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It's something that Peter Wilson, a commercial pilot and geographer, has thought about a lot. In his work mapping the Arctic for the Nunavut Planning Commission, he has crisscrossed the far north countless times by air. The views are spectacular, he says, but "my mind never wanders far from the thought: 'What would happen if we had to make a forced landing here?' "

He has been something of a voice crying in the wilderness on the subject of Arctic air safety. His concern is that Canadian search and rescue (SAR) resources are deployed too far south to get to an emergency site in the far north fast enough. With increased transpolar traffic by widebodied commercial jets, he says, it's only a matter of time before Canada's rescue capability is put to the test.

"These accidents are survivable," he says "But waiting for rescue is not."

The incident on his mind - and the minds of emergency-response planners in the Department of National Defense - is the October 1991 crash of a Hercules transport aircraft near Alert, on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, in what is now the territory of Nunavut. Eighteen people were aboard, and 14 of them survived the crash itself.

But it took two days to rescue the survivors, and in the interim, an additional life was lost. Their efforts were hampered by, among other things, lack of a crew qualified in night vision - critical at that time of the year that far north.

That the rescuers got to the crash and saved as many as they did "is an absolute miracle," Mr. Wilson says. In a June 16, 2000, article in the Globe and Mail newspaper, he wrote, "One Labrador helicopter made it to Alert, after a 44-hour, 4,500-kilometer rescue mission from the shores of Lake Ontario to the top of the world at the speed of a city ambulance."

Lt. Col. Charlie Cue, the senior officer responsible for Air Force search and rescue, insists that the main impediment to rescue after the Alert crash was severe weather, not emergency preparedness. But "lessons learned" from the episode have been built into the Canadian force's emergency plans, including night-vision goggles and better survival equipment.

The search and rescue "kits" - 10,000-pound bundles of emergency supplies - that would be parachuted onto the site of a large passenger jet going down in the Arctic are based in Trenton, because that's the main base for the Hercules transport planes used to deliver them. But Emergency-response resources should be deployed closest to where they are most likely to be needed, Colonel Cue says.

Even across the vast emptiness at the poles, air routes are required to be constructed so that an aircraft remains within a certain flying time of an airport suitable for an emergency landing - a jumbo jet may have a three-hour limit and a smaller craft, 60 minutes.

And even with the considerable increase in traffic being predicted, the polar air space would not be nearly as crowded as areas farther south. "The ideal SAR has a helicopter in every garage," he acknowledges, but adds that that would take an investment Canada is unwilling to make. "We haven't had a major air disaster in the Arctic in 30 years," he says. Statistically, most air mishaps occur on takeoff and landing, and the overall accident rates among major carriers is "very, very low."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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