Marooned with polar bears: Part One
The helicopter crashed into the icy waters of the Arctic Circle. Could the Russian pilot survive?
The pouding noise shatters the silence of Davis Strait, a frigid finger of ocean separating Canada and Greenland. Thwick-thwack, thwick-thwack. The noise comes from above but the marine fog is thick, the source invisible. The sound gets louder. THWICK-THWACK, THWICK-THWACK.
The pilot wears an old red neoprene survival suit. But after 42 days, 21,000 miles and two continents (Eurasia and North America), he sometimes has to relax a little. So he’s bare-chested, with the suit unzipped to his waist, when the sputtering begins.
The helicopter isn’t big: a plucky 400kg Robinson R22. The pilot knows what the sputtering means: a belt transferring power from the engine to the rudder blades has just snapped. He also knows what comes next. The helicopter is going down.
The pilot switches to autorotation, a safety mode that allows the craft to glide downward. From a height of 3,000 feet, it falls at roughly 50 feet per second. But falls where? It isn’t until 700 feet above the partially frozen sea, barely enough time to manoeuvre, that the helicopter pierces the fog. The pilot aims for an ice floe, realises he won’t make it, tilts the craft for safest impact and lands the skids on the water.
The pilot knows the blades could accidentally chop off his head when he climbs out. By leaning to the left, he tips the helicopter in order to smash the blades to pieces against the sea. This kills the engine but now, tail-first, the machine starts to sink.
Sergey in the Robinson R22 as he takes off from Providence Bay in far eastern Russia
Freezing water floods the cockpit, wrapping around his naked chest, rushing down the legs of the unzipped survival suit. His gear begins to float—plastic fuel tanks, a bag of clothes—but the most crucial items are suction-cupped to the windshield: two GPS trackers, one distress beacon and a satellite phone. Somewhere behind his ankles there’s also a deflated life raft containing a survival kit with three flares, a half-litre of water and a tiny box of protein tablets.
Almost instantly, the pilot is submerged to the neck. There’s only time to save one thing. The phone can call for help. The beacon and GPS tracker can give rescuers a chance to actually find him. But none of those do much good if he can’t stay afloat.
He reaches for the raft, but it’s stuck. He swims out the door then dives back into the partially submerged helicopter. The water is black and salty—and at a sub-zero temperature. He frees the raft, swims to the surface and greedily gulps air. He begins swimming to the ice floe—160 feet away. He drags the raft with one hand, uses the other to propel his 12.5-stone frame, now weighted down by the waterlogged suit, through the waves. Killer whales and the elusive Greenland shark hunt these waters.
After three gruelling minutes, he makes it to the floe. But this ice is two feet thick and rough. The weight of the suit makes it impossible to hurl his legs over the jagged lip. He keeps trying, but the sharp ice scrapes away skin, and blood runs down his forearms, into the sea. He finds a smooth section, presses his bare chest flat against the ice, uses his nails as claws and shimmies atop.
"The pilot is submerged to the neck—killer whales and the elusive Greenland shark hunt these waters"
Every inch of him is soaked, and his chest is now exposed to the biting wind. He shivers violently, an automatic response intended to generate heat. His shaking hands struggle to peel off the suit. Once off, he flaps it up and down, trying to wring out the water. And it is then, in under 15 minutes since the belt snapped, as he stands on the ice floe in nothing but his running shoes and underwear, that the situation becomes clear.
Sergey Ananov is trapped on a slab of ice in the Arctic Circle. He has no locator beacon, no phone and barely any water. The fog will hide him from any rescuers. Night will come. Hypothermia will come. And whatever large, powerful creatures scratch out their existence in this primordial world—maybe they will come too.
His eyes wander over the murky open waters. With each passing minute, he’ll drift farther from where helicopter went down, lessening the chance he’ll ever be found.
A lifelong ambition
Solo helicopter pilot, Sergey Ananov, wanted to set a world record
Back on June 13, 2015, the day his Robinson R22 lifted off from the airfield about 20 miles from Moscow, 49-year-old Sergey Ananov was the owner of a Moscow rubbish-andrecycling company. He’d already set five world aviation records in the R22 but nothing as ambitious as this: becoming the first person to fly alone around the world in a helicopter weighing less than one metric ton.
According to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, there has been only one successful roundthe- world solo helicopter flight. But that was in a heavier craft and the pilot had support aircraft trailing him. Except for a couple of friends tracking his progress online, Sergey was doing it alone. This would be the record to put him among the legends.
He began by crossing Siberia into Alaska, flew south through the western United States,
"The wind is unbearable. This is the deep cold of gangrene, cardiac arrest and brain death"
then zigzagged across the American heartland. His days began at dawn and he often landed in the dark, averaging about 500 miles a flight. He refuelled at local and regional airfields. He ate mainly fast food and slept in local hotels.
Sergey got to know America, staying the night in outposts such as Sidney, Montana, and Guntersville, Alabama. The people were friendly— some gave him fuel. He entered Canada near Montreal, traversed remote Quebec and crossed the Hudson Strait to Iqaluit, capital of the Inuit territory of Nunavut. It was from here that he took off that morning of day 42—less than 3,000 miles from home and certain glory.
Now, stranded and shivering, he allows a few minutes to beat himself up for his mistakes. If only he’d dived once more and retrieved one of the GPS trackers or the distress beacon. If only he’d managed to land on the ice floe. He could have somehow hailed a mechanic to fix the R22 and still captured the record. But none of this matters now. He gets to work.
He struggles into the dank survival suit, so he has a thick layer between him and the wind, but that layer is soaked and his body continues to shiver. He fumbles with the cord to blow up the life raft. After several yanks, the raft inflates. He ties it to his leg so it won’t blow away. Using it as a windshield, Sergey lies beneath, flat on his stomach.
This is not the teeth-chattering cold of spending too long on a ski slope. This is the cold of gangrene and cardiac arrest and brain death. Sergey gets up and tries to walk around his ice island, dragging the raft behind him, but he’s quickly panting. Nerve and muscle fibres don’t work so well in the cold. He figures the most helpful thing he can do is simply try to retain heat and energy. He lies back down under the raft.
Friends in need
Marooned above the Arctic Circle, Sergrey didn't know which predators might be lurking nearby
About 3,000 miles away, in San Francisco, a Russian-American friend of Sergey’s named Andrew Kaplin is one of those tracking the journey online. Kaplin sees that one of the GPS trackers indicates the helicopter’s speed has flatlined. He makes a call to another of their pilot friends in Moscow, Michael Farikh. It’s the middle of the night there, but both Farikh and Kaplin begin calling the rescue services. Finally Kaplin manages to raise help—The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax, Canada.
Halifax dispatches two C-130 Hercules aircraft to the pilot’s lastknown position. But it’s too late in the day for a thorough search. Halifax also radios the Pierre Radisson, a 323-foot Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker commanded by Captain Stéphane Julien. Though here, too, a snag. The vessel is at least a day away, escorting a freighter into Iqaluit. With no other icebreakers in the area, Captain Julien cannot abandon his charge without putting the safety of the freighter and its crew at risk.
But Julien knows how dire the situation is for Sergey; he can’t let the stranded pilot perish. Three hours later, once the freighter has been escorted out of the ice and can safely navigate to Iqaluit alone, the CCGS Pierre Radisson is tasked by JRCC Halifax to steam towards the last-known position of the downed helicopter, and proceeds towards Davis Strait.
The lone pilot
Sergey knows one of this. He also knows nothing of the predator now tracking him...
Will Sergey make it? Read Part Two in the November edition of Reader’s Digest.
Enjoyed this story? Share it!