Hunt for mysterious object shot down in remote Yukon faces daunting odds | US news

The rugged, “unpeopled” landscape of Canada’s Yukon territory is a graveyard for aircraft, with more than 500 planes crashing in its forests, mountains and lakes over the years.

Now, Canada’s military and police, alongside their US counterparts, are searching the unforgiving landscape in midwinter for a mysterious object recently shot on Saturday by a fighter plane.

Little is known about the object, except that it was described by Canada’s defence minister, Anita Anand, as being “cylindrical” in shape. It was the third object to be shot down after the US picked off and partly recovered a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina.

On Tuesday, the White House said the Yukon object – and the two downed in Alaska and Michigan – may be connected to “benign” commercial or research efforts.

Search crews were quickly dispatched to the Yukon, an area where temperatures hover around -25C, but Anand tempered expectations that they would find and recover the debris.

“The terrain is extremely rugged. It is extremely remote,” she told reporters.

Among the hundreds of planes to have crashed in the region over the years, a handful have never been found, including a hulking military transport plane with 44 people onboard.

The disappearance of an American Douglas C-54 Skymaster plane in 1950 prompted one of the largest recovery missions ever conducted on the North American continent. But 70 years later, not a single trace of the plane has ever been located.

By chance, military exercises were planned in the area, so nearly 7,000 soldiers joined in the search. More than 80 large planes flew missions to scour the landscape – to no avail.

But David Downing, the head of the Yukon’s Civil Air Search and Rescue Association, said that there have been important changes in the years since the Skymaster vanished.

“There’s a huge, fundamental difference: the air force are now experts at searching. They really know what they’re doing. They know what works, they know what doesn’t work,” he said. “The approach used to be throwing more airplanes and more people at it. But now they have seven decades of experience and better equipment.”

The Canadian air force has sent a number of planes, including a Hercules search and rescue plane as well as two smaller Twin Otter planes and helicopters – aircraft that can fly low and slow.

Map of suspicious objects shot down over North America in February 2023

What hasn’t changed, however, is the immensely difficult terrain and search conditions.

Because the search area is so far north, crews have limited daylight time, which narrows the amount of searching that can be done. The low-lying sun also flattens the appearance of the terrain, masking undulations in the landscape. The region is heavily forested too. There are no roads. Heavy, low-lying cloud cover and snow squalls have already hampered initial search efforts.

“If they’re looking for something that’s white, non-reflective and deflated, with the wind and snow, it could be covered in a couple of hours,” said Downing, adding that plane debris is often easier to spot because a tail could be sticking up from the snow. “I wouldn’t underestimate the challenges they face. Even if they fly right over something, even if it’s right in front of them, the chances of missing it are really high.”

Downing pointed to a recent plane crash in British Columbia, where search teams exhaustively combed an area along the plane’s known route for weeks, but turned up nothing. Eight months later, it was a helicopter pilot, travelling along the same route, who finally spotted the wreckage.

The Canadian military says it is using wind models to help narrow down a search area, but officials say they are searching a swath of snow-covered land nearly 3,000 sq km in size.

“We are exploring a very large area,” Sean McGillis, the acting deputy commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s federal policing program, told reporters. “It is unfortunately very rugged and mountainous terrain. The weather conditions are not great. There’s a very high level of snowpack in the region. So our efforts are going to be difficult. It will be challenging. It will take us some time.”

That probably won’t stop amateur hunters from heading out into the region to conduct their own searches, said Downing.

“Depending on what happens, I’m sure there’ll be a wild group of both technically efficient ‘treasure hunters’ and a few running around with tinfoil hats on their heads,” he said. “There’s probably a few people already out there on snowmobiles starting to search.”

The military is also sending experts with experience in handling hazardous materials, including those with “chemical, biological [and] radiological background[s]”, said McGillis, largely because the search teams know little about the downed object.

Despite significant advances in technology aiding the search crews, nature remains the biggest foe.

“I’d be surprised if they find anything,” said Downing. “Their task is very, very daunting. And I think more than almost anybody realizes.”

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