Eye-opening training prepares 103 Squadron for its rescue response
The mercury on the thermometer reads slightly below zero and the wind chill is -12 C. The season’s first snow is on the ground, and just outside The Narrows, waves of 12 feet to 15 feet roll continuously.
As wintry as Tuesday was, it was apparently a perfect day to hover over the North Atlantic surf and practise search and rescue techniques in a Cormorant helicopter.
“The weather is actually making it a real treat for us,” Maj Stephen Reid said.
“The sea state right now, the wind conditions and the weather, is providing the realism that we’re really looking forward to.”
Reid is commander of the 103 Search and Rescue Squadron in Gander.
While his team’s location has been questioned since the crash of Cougar Flight 491 in March 2009, that’s a political issue. The focus of Reid and his squadron is search and rescue, and that requires training.
They deployed to the St. John’s area Sunday and are conducting a number of exercises before heading back to base Friday.
The initiative is called Boatex and it sees the squadron practising hoists from boats. Reid calls marine rescues their “bread and butter.”
Tuesday morning, with a Telegram reporter and a CBC-TV cameraman onboard, one crew went through three different scenarios outside St. John’s harbour.
Reid, who piloted the CH-149 Cormorant, described each one.
The first was a “big ship hoist sequence” which involved lowering a team of search and rescue technicians (SAR techs) onto a ship, the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Sir Wilfred Grenfell.
The second exercise was an open water hoist, and saw a SAR tech lowered into the ocean and recovered by his peers.
The third was a “small platform-like sequence,” where the technicians were lowered and then hoisted from a Zodiac.
“Which is probably the most challenging of all of them,” Reid noted, “because it requires pinpoint accuracy to insert and then recover the SAR techs from that type of platform.”
What stands out most during the exercises is the willingness of the SAR techs to jump out of the helicopter onto a rocking boat or into the ocean.
Yes, it’s part of their training, but there is zero hesitation and not a whiff of, “I don’t need to do this. I’ve done it before.”
“They live for it,” Reid said. “The SAR techs are an uncommon breed. Their motto is, ‘That others may live,’ and they’re willing to do whatever it takes.”
Sgt Dan Villeneuve is the fist-pumping SAR tech who went into the water and waited for his colleagues to fetch him.
“It wasn’t that bad,” he said. “I know it was snowing and cold and the sea was bit rough, but the water was not too bad.”
In his decade as a SAR tech, Villeneuve has been part of countless missions. Fishermen lost at sea, hunters missing in the woods, planes down in remote areas — he’s worked on those types of rescues and more.
He loves the work and says the “biggest and best feeling you can have” is when someone who has been rescued says thanks.
Jumping out of a helicopter in any condition is not an issue, Villeneuve said.
“If somebody needs us, we’ll be there.”
The sergeant said training like this week’s exercises makes it easier when a real mission arises.
Still, he said he approaches the training in a fun and enthusiastic way, because the work can be difficult and it’s important to keep morale up.
“We always prepare for the worst and hope for the best. It’s never easy and always challenging, but we have to do it. That’s the bottom line.”
Besides the gung-ho attitude of the technicians, the teamwork also stood out Tuesday, as the rescue techniques demand skill and co-ordination.
So while SAR techs hung from a cable, the flight engineer provided voice direction, and the pilots used his input to manipulate the helicopter.
“Certainly, there’s a lot of teamwork involved when we get into these type of operations,” said Reid, noting everyone has to be on their game to ensure precision.
What was also obvious on the training flight was the attention to everyone’s safety.
It’s the only factor that can be controlled on a rescue mission, noted Warrant Officer Phil Robin, the flight engineer.
“The unknown is when they are off the aircraft, going toward the obstacle and stuff, so what we can do to eliminate hazard, we’ll do before,” he said.
The possibility of injury always exists, Reid said, but those risks are mitigated through the training and safety procedures.
“It’s very rare that we actually hurt somebody, but we’re always cognizant the potential does exist.”
Boatex is also training the squadron’s logistics and support side, and allowing the 103 to work with the coast guard.
Reid said that’s important because the more familiar the two organizations are with each other, the more seamless their responses to emergencies will be.
He noted Tuesday’s conditions were “pretty much at the limit of what they would consider safe for training” and the weather in real-life situations can be a lot worst.
Robin, the flight engineer, knows that at all too well. Thirteen years into the work — with many missions and tonnes of training behind him — he admits it can still be personally challenging.
“I still get scared,” he said.
“I wouldn’t lie. (When) there is some difficulty or the sea state is really unpredictable, the boats are different ... you never know what get.”