Passenger Jets Help To Rescue Missing Sailor

Jonathan Samuels, Australia Correspondent

Passengers and crew on two commercial jets have helped locate a missing yachtsman off Australia by looking through the windows with binoculars.

An Air Canada plane and an Air New Zealand aircraft swooped down to 4,000ft to assist rescuers in the search for the solo yachtsman who had activated his emergency beacon.

His remote location was out of helicopter range, so rescuers asked the planes' pilots to get involved as they were flying over the yacht's GPS position.

The crew on each plane asked passengers to tell them if they had binoculars in their hand luggage so they could be used to help in the search.

The Air Canada pilot Captain Andrew Robertson said once he determined he had enough fuel to land the plane safely in Sydney after diverting to search for the yacht, he swooped down to 5,000ft and reduced speed while the crew peered out.

"As we got to about two to three miles of this yacht, the first officer said 'there it is, I see it'. I was amazed.

"We didn't know if we were looking for a sunken boat or one that was still floating."

Captain Robertson circled around once more at 3,700ft for a closer look to see if anyone was on board.

It was then they saw the yachtsman.

Captain Robertson said the search was the first of his aviation career.

"A lot of passengers said it was very exciting to be involved in a search like this," he said.

According to Sydney's Daily Telegraph, one passenger wrote on Facebook: "15 hour flight ends up being 17 hours as we descended to 4,000ft to locate a capsized yacht for search and rescue.

"Amazing, and slightly off putting, to see what a Boeing 777 aircraft can do when not on autopilot and flying/circling low over the ocean."

Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said the crew and a number of passengers on board flight AC033 to Sydney from Vancouver spotted the boat and advised authorities of its location.

He said the yachtsman was subsequently rescued. He said the airline commends the crew and passengers.

"The pilots immediately determined they had sufficient fuel to undertake this, and headed out to the remote area which was over fairly rough seas," he explained.

"After apprising the customers on board that we would assist as we were the only aircraft in the immediate vicinity, all on board became involved in the search efforts," Mr Fitzpatrick said.

"The crew borrowed binoculars from customers and also engaged those sitting on the right hand side of the aircraft to help look.

"As our aircraft flew over the area at 4,000ft, a reflection from a mirror shining upwards was spotted and the crew saw the yacht in question, de-masted with a person standing - which was confirmed by a number of passengers."

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (Amsa) said the 44-year-old sailor had now been picked up 270 nautical miles out to sea.

He is said to be in good spirits and uninjured after drifting for 16 hours.

Speaking about the involvement of the passenger jets, a spokesperson from the Amsa said: "It's not a regular occurrence, but that's because incidents are (usually) much closer to shore.

"Amsa thanks the captains and crews of the Air Canada and Air New Zealand aircraft for their assistance in the search and rescue operation, and their passengers for their patience."

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