IQALUIT, Nunavut – A Russian helicopter pilot who spent more than 30 hours on an ice floe after ditching his small helicopter into frigid Arctic waters says he's not sure he would have survived much longer had searchers not seen his last warning flare.
Sergey Ananov, 49, was on a solo, around-the-world journey in his single-engine aircraft and was about halfway between Iqaluit and Greenland when his Robinson R22 helicopter went down in the Davis Strait on Saturday afternoon.
Speaking via satellite phone Monday from the Canadian coast guard vessel Pierre Radisson following his rescue, Ananov related a tale that involved quick thinking, a visit from three inquisitive polar bears and a fortunate break in the weather.
"I was on the edge," said Ananov of his condition when he was rescued. "Luckily for one or two hours the fog disappeared."
Ananov said his helicopter went down after one of two rubber belts leading from the engine to the rotor exploded. He said he was able to partially pull on his survival suit and scramble into a small life raft before the aircraft sank in a matter of about 30 seconds.
It was then a short, cold swim to an ice floe.
Ananov said the raft provided his only means of shelter as he waited to be rescued..
Ananov said he fired two of his three flares as aircraft flew overhead, but the pilots couldn't see anything because a thick fog blanketed the area.
"So I spent another day on the ice trembling, freezing and struggling ... to think, to maneuver."
Ananov said at one point he was approached by three polar bears that got to within a meter (3.3 feet) of him. He said he waited and then managed to chase them off by acting as aggressively as he could to startle the animals.
"They had never seen a creature dressed with a red survival suit ... with two legs, two arms waving and roaring. It was like a red devil."
He said the bears jumped into the water and swam to a nearby floe.
As Ananov struggled to survive with no food and water, searchers began to close in after picking up a beacon signal on board the helicopter.
Capt. Stephane Julien, commanding officer of the Pierre Radisson, said fog and ice conditions hindered progress and his vessel took 25 hours to reach the area of the crash site. He said visibility was poor Sunday, but conditions suddenly cleared and he decided to use the ship's helicopter.
The noise of the helicopter alerted Ananov who set off his last flare and was rescued.
Julien said Ananov was found in "good shape" despite his 32-hour ordeal and would be taken to Iqaluit, the capital of Canada's territory of Nunavut.