Robinson R22 Down
The pounding 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 the helicopter, its pilot realizes, and it’s getting louder. THWICK-THWACK, THWICK-THWACK.
That pilot, Sergey Ananov, wears an old red neoprene survival suit. But the bulky outfit is hot and its mittens make it difficult to operate the cyclic stick. After flying for 42 days over 33,000 kilometres and two continents (Eurasia and North America), he sometimes relaxes a little and unzips down to his waist. That’s why he’s bare-chested when the sound begins.
The helicopter is not big: a plucky 400-kilogram Robinson R22. Ananov knows every centimetre, every bolt. And he knows what the sputtering means: a belt transferring power from the engine to the rudder blades has snapped. He also knows what comes next. The helicopter is going down.
Ananov switches to autorotation, a safety mode that allows the craft to glide downward. From a height of 900 metres, it falls at roughly 15 metres per second. The marine fog is thick, so it isn’t until 215 metres above the partially frozen sea that the helicopter pierces it. With little time to manoeuvre, Ananov aims for an ice floe, realizes he won’t make it, tilts the craft for safest impact and lands the skids smoothly on the water.
Ananov knows the blades could chop off his head when he climbs out, so he leans the helicopter to the left so that they smash to pieces against the sea. This kills the engine and the machine starts to sink—tail first and fast.
Freezing water floods the cockpit, rising around the pilot’s naked chest and rushing down the legs of his open survival suit. His gear begins to float—plastic fuel tanks, a bag of clothes—but the most crucial items have been suction-cupped to the windshield: two GPS trackers, a 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.
As Ananov becomes submerged to his neck, there’s only time to save one thing. He swims out the door, then dives back into the helicopter to free the raft. The water is black and salty and cold—around 2 degrees C.
After surfacing, Ananov propels himself towards an ice floe 50 metres away, dragging the nine-kilogram raft with one hand. Killer whales and the elusive Greenland shark hunt these waters, but they aren’t on his mind.
After three gruelling minutes, he makes it to the floe. But the ice is a half-metre thick, and the weight of the suit makes it impossible to hurl his legs over the jagged lip. He keeps trying, the sharp ice scraping away skin, blood running down his forearms. He finds a smooth section, presses his chest flat against the ice and uses his nails to claw and shimmy to the top.
Every inch of Ananov is soaked, and his upper body is now exposed to the biting wind. He shivers violently, an automatic response to generate heat. His shaking hands peel off the suit, and he flaps it up and down, wringing out the water.
And it is then, just 15 minutes since the belt snapped, as he stands on the ice floe in nothing but his running shoes and underwear, that the grim situation becomes clear to Ananov. He is trapped on a slab of ice in the Arctic Circle with no locator beacon, no phone and barely any water.
The fog will hide him from any rescuers. Night will come. Hypothermia will set in. And whatever large, powerful creatures scratch out their existence in this primordial world, maybe they will come too.
Looking for another survival story? Check out this polar expedition gone wrong.