Canadian Forces search and rescue (SAR) missions often happen in the fiercest of weather, under the cover of darkness, and when all other resources have been exhausted or deemed unsafe.
Canadian SAR crews face these challenges head on, enabled by the regional Joint Rescue Coordination Centres, and focused on saving lives.
The weather and terrain complications faced by a standby CH-149 Cormorant helicopter crew, based out of 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron, 19 Wing Comox, B.C., the night of Dec. 23, 2010, were the dark of night, high winds, severe “down flow”, high altitude and low visibility. These factors helped in making the rescue a clear choice for the international judges of the Shephard Press Rescue Award when they recognized the Royal Canadian Air Force Cormorant “Rescue 907” crew stationed at 442 T&R Squadron for “Operational Rescue Excellence” in March 2012 in Dublin, Ireland.
The crew, with coordination assistance coming from the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Victoria, B.C., rescued a stranded hiker on Hat Mountain in Cypress Provincial Park, B.C. Ground SAR teams from Lion’s Bay and North Shore Rescue were positioned on a local ridge line and visible to the Cormorant crew, but a seasoned avalanche forecaster had advised that due to rising avalanche hazards and deteriorating weather, that they should not move forward.
That mission won international fame for its daring. Other missions tell similar stories of our SAR crews taking on the challenges and risks required to save lives.
On the night of Aug. 28, 2011, in the area of Kootenay Lake, B.C., the Cormorant “Rescue 904” crew, also from Comox, conducted a challenging high hoist and extracted a hiker who had fallen more than 12 metres (40 feet) down a waterfall at MacBeth Icefield, north of Kaslo, B.C.
The hiker’s leg had gotten caught between rocks, but his father, a doctor, was with him and he was being cared for when the helicopter crew arrived. The Cormorant made several attempts to manoeuvre over the area but winds made the hover difficult. The SAR technicians were advised that unless an immediate extraction could take place, the helicopter would have to depart for fuel. Under illumination provided by the CC-115 Buffalo aircraft dropping flares, the SAR technicians quickly prepared the hiker and his father for the high hoist, and extracted them safely.
On Oct. 13, 2011, Cormorant helicopter "Rescue 915" from 103 Search and Rescue Squadron, 9 Wing Gander, N.L., conducted the medical evacuation (medevac) of a 26-year-old man with suspected appendicitis from the container ship OOCL Belgium. The vessel was in the North Atlantic Ocean, about 450 nautical miles northeast of Gander, and the SAR crew was forced to wait for the vessel so that the aircraft would have the fuel range to complete the mission.
The crew of “Rescue 915” arrived at the vessel in the very early hours of the morning and conducted the challenging hoist to the top of the wheelhouse of the vessel. A circling CC-130 Hercules aircraft from 413 Transport and Rescue Squadron, 14 Wing Greenwood, N.S., dropped flares to illuminate the scene. Two SAR technicians were lowered to the vessel and successfully secured the patient; using the “rescue basket recovery method”, they then hoisted the patient onboard the Cormorant. “Rescue 915” airlifted the patient to the James Paton Memorial Hospital in Gander after 4.8 hours flying time; the limit for the Cormorant is 5.0 hours.
In the early evening of March 22, 2012, the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax, N.S., dispatched Cormorant helicopter “Rescue 908” from 413 T&R Squadron, in response to a request from the Emergency Measures Office in New Brunswick, for assistance in the evacuation of three people from their home in Middle River. An ice jam had flooded the surrounding area and the home, surrounded by rising, fast-moving water, was in danger being torn apart by large ice chunks. When the call came into the coordination centre, the home’s front porch had already been torn away.
When the Cormorant arrived, several emergency response personnel were on the banks of the river but unable to reach the house’s occupants. SAR technicians airlifted the three occupants, along with their two dogs, from the small backyard to the hovering helicopter, 135 feet above. It was a challenging rescue, given the confined area in which the crew had to work. All those rescued were flown to the Bathurst airport, where local emergency services were waiting.
Canadian Forces SAR is involved in the coordination of approximately 9,100 aeronautical and maritime incidents annually, tasking military aircraft or ships in about 1,100 cases. Historically, these actions have provided assistance to more than 20,000 persons and saved on average more than 1,200 lives each year.
Sadly, over the last 25 years, 34 SAR crew members – including civilian members the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association have given their lives in their quest to save others. Our hearts are still heavy with the loss of Sergeant Janick Gilbert, a SAR technician with 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron, 8 Wing Trenton, Ont., who died on Oct. 27, 2011 during the rescue of a young man and his father, who were stranded in pack-ice in their raft near the Arctic community of Igloolik.
Rescue Coordination Centre Trenton directed the rescue assets, which included the collaborative effort of SAR aircraft and crews from 8 Wing Trenton, 9 Wing Gander, 14 Wing Greenwood and 17 Wing Winnipeg, Man. During the rescue, three SAR technicians parachuted from a Hercules aircraft into the icy Arctic waters.
One SAR technician swam to the raft where he provided assistance to the men until recovery by a Cormorant helicopter, approximately four hours later. The second SAR technician swam until he realized he could not close the distance to the raft; he then deployed his personal one-man life raft, stowed his rescue gear and bailed his raft until recovery by the helicopter. Sgt Gilbert, the team leader for the jump, landed furthest from the raft and did not survive. As we grieve the loss of a dear colleague, the flight safety investigation continues to examine the event to ensure we learn the most we can from Sgt Gilbert’s sacrifice.
Some rescues receive international acclaim; others receive only the gratitude of the persons saved. In every case and every day, Canadian Forces personnel dedicated to SAR make critical choices, employing teamwork to fulfill their motto “that others may live”.
In the coming season as Canadians venture out to explore the beautiful, yet oft-treacherous wilderness that is our nation, our SAR crews urge travelers to share their travel itineraries, be equipped with up-to-date distress signaling equipment, and to travel with appropriate survival gear to stand the best chance of being successfully rescued.
Canada’s national Search and Rescue Program is led by the Minister of National Defence and supported by a National Search and Rescue Secretariat. Canada's SAR operations are an integrated service, involving the Canadian Forces, the Canadian Coast Guard, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and other federal, provincial, municipal and volunteer organizations. The Canadian Forces, through authority of Canada Command, has the primary responsibility for providing aeronautical and, with the Canadian Coast Guard, maritime search and rescue response services. Provincial and territorial governments have lead responsibility for ground SAR activities, including the response for cases of missing or lost persons.
The story above was the final written by Sgt Eileen Redding before her recent retirement from the Canadian Forces.