The wreckage of a Canadian plane which crashed in Antarctica is too dangerous to remove because it is embedded in snow and ice on a steep mountain slope, officials say.
The U.S. Antarctic Program and Antarctica New Zealand have decided to recall the search and rescue teams which have been in the area.
The plane, operated by Calgary-based Kenn Borek Air, was reported missing after it failed to reach its destination on Wednesday.
Search crews in aircraft spotted the wreckage on a steep slope near the summit of Mount Elizabeth on the Queen Alexandra range, but New Zealand officials said the impact appears to have been direct and would not have been survivable for the three crew members on board.
'There is a path that they actually sort of follow through. And it looks like the pilot made a turn too early.' —Chris Henshaw, New Zealand Rescue Co-Ordination Centre
Search teams were able to recover some material from the exposed tail of the plane, including the cockpit voice recorder. Officials say that could provide investigators with more information about the crash.
They were not able to access and recover the bodies of the crew.
"With the advent of the Antarctic winter, and the generally poor weather conditions at the crash site, any renewed effort to recover the remains will need to wait until the next Antarctic research season," said Antarctica New Zealand.
The next research season starts in October.
Plane may have turned too early
The plane appears to have been on course but may have turned too early while flying through a mountain range, says an official with the agency that confirms the aircraft has been found.
Chris Henshaw, a search and rescue officer with the New Zealand Rescue Co-Ordination Centre, says the wreckage of the Twin Otter lies along the route the plane was intending to fly between the South Pole and an Italian base in Antarctica's Terra Nova Bay.
"From looking at the maps, it is a logical route for it to fly through the mountain range," Henshaw said about the location of the crash.
"There is a path that they actually sort of follow through. And it looks like the pilot made a turn too early. We don't know at this stage," he added.
New Zealand officials say the next of kin of the three men have been informed.
The pilot has been identified by friends as Bob Heath of Inuvik while media reports have identified a second crew member as Mike Denton, a newlywed from Calgary whose photographs of planes appear on the Kenn Borek website.
The third crew member had not yet been identified.
Earlier, a news release from the New Zealand Rescue Co-ordination Centre had said the recovery effort would be led by the Unified Incident Command, which is a joint unit of the United States Antarctica Programme and Antarctica New Zealand's incident management unit.
The release said the mission was expected to be difficult. The site is at an elevation of 3,900 metres. The intention was to return the men's bodies to New Zealand and repatriate them to Canada, the news release stated.
Diane Ablonczy, minister of state of foreign affairs, issued a statement Saturday saying she was saddened by the crash and offering condolences to the families of the three Canadians.
"On behalf of Canada, I sincerely thank the New Zealand, U.S., Italian and civilian search and rescue teams for the valiant efforts they have made over the last several days to locate the missing plane," her statement said.
"Canadian officials will continue to work closely with local authorities in New Zealand and stand ready to provide any needed consular assistance to the families."
Investigators trying to reach site
Julie Leroux of the Transportation Safety Board said that since the Twin Otter was operated by a Canadian company, officials here have already started working on a probe into the crash.
Leroux said Canadian investigators have collected data and conducted interviews.
"The Transportation Safety Board is waiting for more information to determine our next step," Leroux said Saturday, speaking from Gatineau, Que., where the board is based.
An emergency locator beacon had been detected coming from the crash site early on, but rescue teams were hampered by bad weather that made it difficult for planes flying over the area to see anything.
On Friday, a break in the weather allowed rescuers to set up a forward base at Beardmore Glacier, about 50 kilometres from the crash site, where there is a landing strip and a fuel depot.
A statement on the Kenn Borek Air website said visual contact with the wreckage was first made by a C-130 Hercules aircraft of the New York Air National Guard, and the sighting was later confirmed by another Twin Otter deployed by the airline.
Kenn Borek Air, which is also a fixture in Canada's North, has been sending planes to Antarctica for the past 28 years.
Heath has been described as a highly experienced pilot by friends.
Fellow pilot Sebastian Seykora said Heath had been flying in Antarctica for at least a decade.