Flyover Mission: Passing Air Canada Flight Helps Rescue Stranded Australian Yacht

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REUTERS / Tim Wimborne

Sitting in a cramped airline seat for almost 14 hours is mind-numbing, but a spontaneous search-and-rescue mission certainly has the power to break up the monotony of the same in-flight movie playing on loop.

An Air Canada flight from Vancouver was nearing its Sydney destination after what seemed to be a routine 16-hour flight from Vancouver when it received a call from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority Tuesday morning asking for help. The marine agency had just received a distress call about 275 miles off the Sydney coast, where the Boeing 777 plane happened to be passing through en route to its final destination.

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The pilots aboard Flight 33 decided that they had enough fuel to assist in the search, enlisting the help of crew and passengers to search for the origin of the distress call. Captain Andrew Robertson, who was piloting the plane, dropped the aircraft from its 34,000-foot cruising altitude down to 4,000 feet, asking passengers to look closely at the choppy sea less than a mile below.“As we approached the area, I made a PA announcement to the passengers, you know, ‘Please help us look, if you see anything …’ because it’s very difficult to find anything down 5,000 feet,” Robertson told the Telegraph.

Glenn Ey, a 44-year-old man from Queensland, Australia, had been sailing on the Pacific Ocean for two weeks when he got ensnared in a storm. A giant wave crippled his mast, and his efforts to reach less-choppy seas emptied his gas tank. After nine days of drifting, attempting  he realized there was little hope of making it back to land on his own. “I couldn’t see any evidence of Sydney, and I had no idea of my exact position, and it was at that point I set off the emergency position indicator radio beacon,” Ey told CNN. The signal is meant to alert ground-based rescue authorities of a stranded boater’s position — surely Ey never expected to be found from above, by a passenger jet. But he couldn’t argue with their speed: from his initial emergency signal to when he was found, a mere 25 minutes had elapsed.

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A couple of eagle-eyed passengers ended up spotting Ey’s 36-foot yacht, which was celebrated in a burst of applause. “We were happy when we found the boat the first time and we were really happy when we found that this guy was alive,” Robertson told NBC News. The plane then proceeded to fly over Ey’s boat to let him know that he had been spotted; later, a nearby vessel rescued Ey. In spite of the heroic detour, the Air Canada flight managed to arrive at the gate only 90 minutes late.

An Air New Zealand flight passing through the area also aided in the search for the missing sailor.

Erica Ho is a contributor at TIME and the editor of Map Happy. Find her on Twitter at @ericamho and Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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