A Belgian pilot sheltering in his smashed aircraft on a Labrador mountainside was surprised and grateful to see nine rescuers emerge from a blinding blizzard to save him, says the man who oversaw the arduous search.
Barry Andersen, the mayor of Makkovik and search co-ordinator, says the ground rescue team travelled in 10-metre visibility through a blizzard over 70 kilometres on their snowmobiles Wednesday.
The 47-year-old pilot’s handheld GPS helped guide the team through inky darkness to the foot of a steep incline.
From there, the rescuers had to proceed on foot.
The mayor said the slope they had to ascend to reach the airplane was at an 80-degree angle, forcing the ground searchers to scramble upwards “using hands and knees.”
“The pilot is pretty amazed he did survive at all,” said Andersen, who met the pilot before he was sent on to hospital in Goose Bay on Thursday.
“I don’t think he was expecting to see anybody banging on his cockpit window after the helicopters couldn’t get in there. … He couldn’t stop thanking us.”
The rescuers dressed the Belgian man in warmer clothing and helped him down to their snowmobiles for the arduous trip back to the community.
They also used ropes to lower a 73-year-old passenger from the United Kingdom who was badly injured and unconscious.
The joint rescue co-ordination centre later confirmed the older man died as a result of his injuries from the crash.
Maj. Mark Gough of Maritime Forces Atlantic says the U.S.-registered single-engine plane was on its way from Goose Bay, N.L., to Greenland when it went down about 75 kilometres southeast of Makkovik on Wednesday.
The pilot was conscious and able to communicate with rescuers before the search team reached the pair on Wednesday night at a site about 500 metres above sea level.
“We tried to get our Cormorant helicopter into the site, but the weather prevented us from getting anywhere near it,” Gough said. “Even the ground search and rescue team had a difficult time in reaching the site.”
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The team of rescuers included one local RCMP officer from the Makkovik detachment and eight volunteers.
Two of the volunteers were also members of the Makkovik Canadian Ranger patrol, though they weren’t there in an official military capacity.
Andersen says the rescue team is used to the severe conditions and has dealt with similar situations on at least three occasions over the past decade with low visibility conditions and 90-kilometre-per-hour winds.
“The team members are intimately familiar with the land … It’s something that we do,” he said.