THE aircraft that found state Water Minister Tim Holding in the Victorian alps on Monday night was fitted with secret experimental night surveillance equipment being developed for the Australian Federal Police.
Advanced thermal imaging technology, designed to track fugitives by detecting body heat, is believed to have helped locate Mr Holding on the slopes of Mount Feathertop and hasten his dramatic rescue yesterday, ending a two-day ordeal.
Amid the relief at Mr Holding's rescue, police and the State Government went to extraordinary lengths yesterday to withhold information about the plane that found him.
A Government spokesman said questions about the plane should be directed to the Victoria Police, adding: "Decisions on the use of emergency resources are operational decisions for emergency agencies."
The Victoria Police, after referring to "an AFP plane" in a media release earlier in the day, later withdrew the statement and amended it to remove all references to the AFP.
"For security reasons police will not confirm whose plane it is," spokeswoman Nicole McKechnie said. "It was offered to us and we accepted that offer."
The AFP, meanwhile, denied that it had any planes.
But last night The Age learnt that the plane that pinpointed Mr Holding on Monday was carrying surveillance technology secretly developed for the AFP, principally to track terrorists.
It also emerged that Mr Holding had been carrying a headlamp given to him for his birthday recently by his partner, Sunday Herald Sun journalist Ellen Whinnett, and that the light may have been detected by aerial searchers.
Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walsh confirmed that information received from a plane on Monday night had given police confidence that the minister would be found yesterday morning.
"We did have some information that came to us overnight that we had been working on this morning and we had search teams heading into the location," Mr Walsh said.
Mr Holding was finally spotted just before 10am yesterday by news helicopters, waving a reflective thermal blanket.
An experienced hiker, Mr Holding still had water but had run out of food and was said to be saturated and dehydrated.
He told rescuers he had become disoriented after falling about 100 metres down one of Feathertop's icy slopes.
After being winched to safety by a police helicopter, Mr Holding was taken to the nearby town of Bright, where he was reunited with his parents, Bruce and Carol, and Ms Whinnett.
The 37-year-old minister began his hike up Victoria's second highest peak on Saturday afternoon, reaching Federation Hut about 200 metres below the summit before dark. He set out alone in bad weather on Sunday morning for the final ascent.
The alarm was raised on Sunday night after he failed to return home or to contact Ms Whinnett.
Mr Holding said yesterday he was "chilly" but not worried during his ordeal. He was found about 2.6 kilometres from where he was last seen, near the 1922-metre summit, police said.
Asked what he would be doing last night, Mr Holding said: "I certainly won't be going hiking, that's for sure."
Later, he released a statement saying: "I'm very relieved to be back safely and I'm extremely grateful to everyone who helped out with the search and rescue effort."
Ms Whinnett said she began worrying about Mr Holding on Sunday. "I was twitchy about it all day on Sunday because he hadn't contacted me at all, and that was unusual.
"I was very glad to see him get off the helicopter. He's really cold, he's got a few scratches and bruises, he's disorientated but he's fine." She said he had plenty of water but had not eaten much in the last day. "He's had a biscuit at some point," Ms Whinnett said.
Bruce and Carol Holding said it was difficult to describe their intense worry for their son and they were relieved to have him home. "It was a trying two days, a bit sleepless," Mr Holding said.
Mrs Holding said: "We're just ecstatic that he's back, and he's safe and he seems to be OK."
About 80 searchers, including police, SES, army and highly trained alpine bushwalking volunteers, camped on the mountain on Monday night.
Despite the secrecy over the plane, the Government and the police insisted Mr Holding had been treated no differently to any other lost hiker. Mr Walsh said of the search team: "They're not here just because it's Tim Holding, a minister. They're here because somebody was missing in the bush and needed their assistance."
Premier John Brumby said his minister had received "the same standard of care, the same standard of search" as anyone else in the same situation would have received.
Mr Holding told paramedics he had never thought he was in danger and believed he would be rescued. "He is well aware of the amount of effort that went into his safe return and wanted me to express that to the public and the services involved," said paramedic Steve Grove.
"His condition is very well. He was well-prepared, his temperature was quite good considering he has been out there for a couple of days."
However, Mr Grove said there was a lesson for hikers in the minister's experience: hikers should carry EPIRB emergency beacons. "If he had have had an EPIRB, and they are probably a $550 to $600 item, he would have been retrieved on Sunday afternoon," he said.
Mr Brumby said he was delighted to receive news of the rescue. He admitted his anxiety had risen after Mr Holding did not walk out on Monday.
"These things are hard … you expect if someone is out there they'll get through one night and then after one night it gets harder and harder," he said.
"To say that we are elated, to say that we are delighted, to say that we are very relieved would be an understatement."
He would not be drawn on whether Mr Holding should have attempted the walk alone. "I don't think you can make judgments about this yet … there are plenty of people who do that walk," Mr Brumby said.
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