A spotting aircraft dispatched to circle above a patch of land in Antarctica to search for a missing airplane with three Canadians on board has returned to base, due to bad weather hampering the effort.

The operation is being led by the Rescue Co-ordination Centre New Zealand, which sent a DC-3 airplane above an area near the South Pole where the missing Twin Otter, operated by Calgary-based Kenn Borek Air, appeared to be transmitting an emergency beacon. The signal was activated around 10 p.m. local time Tuesday, Maritime New Zealand said in a release.

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The Canadian pilot of the missing Twin Otter was identified by his wife as Bob Heath of Inuvik, N.W.T. (Courtesy Lucy Heath)

But in a late-night interview Wednesday, TV New Zealand's Rebecca Edwards told CBC News that poor visibility and high winds forced the DC-3 to head back to McMurdo Station, an American research facility in Antarctica.

"[The DC-3] had been circling above that area for about six hours, and it had hoped to make visual contact with the plane, as well as dropping a satellite telephone down to the Canadian crew," Edwards reported. "Unfortunately, harsh weather conditions has meant neither of those things could take place."

Edwards said that frustrated search and rescuers described the situation as a "terrible waiting game," as their schedule is at the mercy of poor weather that's expected to last another 12 hours. Paramedics and rescue aircraft are on standby should the weather improve soon.

Pilot identified as Bob Heath from Inuvik

The pilot of the missing Twin Otter has been identified by his wife, Lucy, as Bob Heath from Inuvik, N.W.T.

Kenn Borek Air has not confirmed the names of the people on board the aircraft.

Immense cloud cover at 22,000 feet and extreme winds were making it impossible for the DC-3 to descend any lower to make visual contact, said Steve Rendle, a spokesman for Rescue Co-ordination Centre New Zealand.

The forecast is also calling for heavy snowfall.

In a note of optimism, Edwards said the search crew had pointed out that Antarctica is currently experiencing 24-hour daylight, which will at the very least mean nightfall won't be any issue as they continue the rescue effort in what is the coldest, driest and windiest continent on Earth.

Survival kit, tents on board

"I have been told there is a survival kit on board that plane that includes provisions that will last five days, as well as mountain tents," Edwards added. "The best-case scenario here, rescuers are telling me, is that those three are hunkered down, waiting for assistance."

The beacon is transmitting from the northern end of the continent's Queen Alexandra mountain range. That site is about 150 kilometres from the South Pole.

Once the weather clears, the plan is to set up a rescue base 50 kilometres from where it is believed the plane went down en route to an Italian base in Terra Nova Bay, Antarctica.

The condition of those who were onboard the aircraft is unknown but "standard operating procedure in Antarctica is to travel with survival suits and supplies," said Rendle.

The pilot's wife, Lucy Heath, said the company has promised to update her on any information.

"They didn't say when. They said they would update me as they know."

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada says it's aware of the incident and is awaiting more details.

With files from The Canadian Press