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'God was with me' -- pilot
Hungry, cold and drifting away, Russian helicopter pilot fends off three bears before rescue

Casey Lessard
Northern News Services
Saturday, August 1, 2015

Alone in the Davis Strait on an drifting ice floe, dressed only in a pair of underwear and a wet survival suit, Russian helicopter pilot Sergey Ananov fended off three polar bears and survived 36 hours before being rescued by a Canadian icebreaker.

NNSL photo/graphic

Russian adventurer Sergey Ananov, centre, returned to Iqaluit July 28 thanks to his rescuers from the CCGS Pierre Radisson, including helicopter pilot Michel Dubé, left, and commanding officer Stephane Julien, right. Ananov was rescued by the icebreaker after crashing his helicopter in the Davis Strait, and spending 36 hours on an ice floe. - Casey Lessard/NNSL photo

"Frankly speaking, I was confident that I will not be rescued," Ananov told reporters July 28 after the CCGS Pierre Radisson's helicopter dropped him off at Iqaluit airport.

Nearing the end of a world record attempt to fly around the Arctic Circle in a Robinson 22 helicopter, Ananov crashed midway between Iqaluit and Nuuk July 26. The craft sunk quickly, leaving him only enough time to grab a life raft and three flares.

"I was giving me a 70 per cent chance at the beginning, when I thought they could come to my (beacon-transmitted) spot exactly," Ananov said, noting he expected rescue aircraft would fly low enough to see him. Hearing planes overhead, he shot off two of his flares, but realized they were wasted.

"I had two days of fog, and I understood that the fog could stay there for many days. I could not give them distress signals. When I understand that they are flying over the fog, I said no, a two per cent chance (of surviving). But two per cent is something. I struggled for life for this two per cent."

The Canadian Coast Guard was actively searching for the downed pilot.

"We knew we had a good position on him," said icebreaker commanding officer Stephane Julien. "We knew his last known position, and there was not that (much) wind since he crashed, so he couldn't have drifted 25 miles, there was not that (much) current, the ice was still around."

Julien said the fog reduced visibility to about one kilometre, and that the ship could easily have passed him by.

"Time was running out, and then a little miracle happened at 9:15 at night," he recalled. "The fog went away really, really fast, and we had a beautiful sunset, so the hopes went up. I knew that 36 hours, even if he was OK, we had to find him fast."

When the fog lifted, Ananov's spirit soared.

"Then, I again had a 70 per cent chance. Eighty, maybe 90," he said. "Because it is dark and every distress signal of light can be noticed, especially from the bridge of a ship. That was a lucky coincidence."

He shot off the third flare, and in the dying seconds of its illumination, a young third officer on the Pierre Radisson spotted it.

"Everybody was just out of their minds when we found him," Julien said. "She saw a little flare on the ice, and it was quite far away, maybe four or five miles, and with the big ice floes, we could have missed it. We saw the last six, seven, eight seconds of it. The word went through the ship in a heartbeat. People in the flight deck, people in the lounges. People that were asleep got out of bed to see him. It was the greatest feeling."

He said Ananov would have eventually been found, perhaps the next day, because the ice floe was within the search pattern. But without food and surviving off ice, that could have been too late for Ananov.

"Two main enemies -- the low temperature and wind, and the second enemy, bears," he said. Already, he had to fend off three bears that had approached him from neighbouring floes during his time.

"Male or female, I don't know. But big bears," he said. "I didn't know how to react. Instinctively, I decided to frighten them more than they frightened me to get them panicked of me. I hided under the life raft, and when they approached, like two metres, and I see their noses already here and the breath, I jumped out of there and just attacked. I chased them. At that moment they were really frightened. That was sudden for them. They turned around 180 degrees, and run from me. I run after them because I understand that if I stop, they will stop also. That was the tactic and it worked every one of three times."

He tried to downplay the courage needed to face down the bears.

"Everybody will do that," he emphasized. "Everybody. Don't make a hero of that. This is your Alamo, your final stage. If you don't do that, nobody will help you. It's a struggle for life. If you are in this situation, you all will do the same."

His is a story of survival that could have been simplified or aggravated had the rubber belt, which transfers power to the rotor, snapped a little or much later in his flight, respectively.

Survival would have been simplified had the belt broke a little later as a physical characteristic of helicopter flight called autorotation dictates that he could travel a distance four times his altitude before landing. However, he estimates the floe was five times his altitude away.

If he had been that little bit closer, he could have landed the craft on the ice, stayed warm inside, and called for help on his satellite phone.

However, had the belt snapped later still, he would have splash-landed in the open waters of Davis Strait, where ice floes are few and the ocean current would have swept him away, Julien said.

"He was lucky that his helicopter broke down at the ice edge. Ten more minutes (in the air), and he would have been over open water. It's a hell of a story."

Ananov - whose passport and wallet sunk with the helicopter - was assisted home to Moscow by supporters and Russian embassy staff. The aviator, who already holds five world records in helicopter flight, said the experience has left him undeterred, and he plans to try the record again after a vacation in a warm location, perhaps Turkey.

That record attempt, however, depends on whether his wife, son and daughter agree to it.

"They were all very nervous before my start," Ananov said. "It's bad luck they proved. In the most remote, most difficult survival place, it happened to me. Now I must persuade them again. I must beg them to forgive me for those harsh moments, maybe days, I gave them."

Perhaps motivating his desire to try again is the fact he had accomplished 33,000 km of a 38,000-km journey.

"I was so close to victory. It was just a direct line through Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Moscow," he said, noting his disappointment. "On the other hand, this is my story of survival. God was with me. I'm proud that I mean something to Him."

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