424 ‘Tiger’ Transport and Rescue Squadron stands ready

News Article / May 4, 2016

By Captain David Lavallee

The wind howls as it tosses the small fishing boat around in the frothing waters off the coast near Igloolik in Nunavut, the tiny vessel barely visible in the dark grey light of autumn. The two figures in the boat clutch their soaked jackets around themselves in a vain effort to stay warm.

For nearly 48 hours, the storm has blown furiously, without stopping, and the fishermen have no food and barely any fresh water remaining. The temperature is below freezing; the frigid rain and seawater lash the boat mercilessly. They know their chances of surviving this ordeal were slim to begin with, and are diminishing with each passing hour.

Just when it seems all is lost, they hear what sounds like an aircraft flying low overhead. A few minutes later, they see two men swimming toward them, pulling an inflatable raft. As the swimmers pull themselves from the water into the boat, the beleaguered fishermen see they are clad in bright orange clothing – the mark of search and rescue (SAR) technicians of the Royal Canadian Air Force. They pull their supplies into the boat and secure the inflatable raft alongside, saying “We’re from 424 Squadron, and we’re here to help.”

This is a fictional scenario, but one of many such situations that the men and women of 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron, based at 8 Wing Trenton, Ontario, could find themselves responding to.

“A search and rescue mission can happen at any time, night or day,” says Lieutenant-Colonel Dany Poitras, the squadron’s commanding officer. “We don’t get to choose the scenario; all we can do is ensure that our people are properly trained and ready to respond.”

Known as the ‘Tigers,’ 424 Squadron has been designated a transport and rescue unit since 1968. Its origins lie in the Second World War, when 424 Squadron was stood up as a bomber unit, which in turn became a fighter squadron post-war, before its current designation. Its ‘Tiger’ moniker was earned when the squadron was adopted by the City of Hamilton, and styled itself after the city’s football club, known as the Tiger-Cats.

While 424 Squadron still undertakes some transport missions (primarily supply runs to Canadian Forces Station Alert on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut) with other units at 8 Wing that focus exclusively on transport, 424 Squadron’s primary mission is search and rescue (SAR).

“Search and rescue is a highly challenging mandate,” Lieutenant-Colonel Poitras says. “But, at the same time, it is also extremely rewarding, as you truly do make a difference for others.”

The ‘Tigers’ share responsibility for providing primary search and rescue coverage for the Trenton Search and Rescue Region (SRR) alongside Winnipeg-based 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron. The Trenton SRR encompasses the landmass of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, two-thirds of Québec, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut (except the southeastern half of Baffin Island), all of Hudson Bay, and Canada’s portion of the Great Lakes.

All told, it spans an area greater than 10 million square kilometres, which is roughly equivalent to the area of Europe and western Russia, and includes terrain as diverse as open water, prairie, mountains, dense boreal forest, boggy tundra and the frozen Arctic. “The challenge is always distance,” says Major Jean-Paul Landry, the squadron’s deputy commanding officer, who notes that getting to people in distress as quickly as possible is crucial.

It’s a huge area, and a great responsibility, one that the men and women of 424 Squadron take seriously. To respond to the many different scenarios it may face, the squadron employs two very different aircraft: the H-model CC-130 Hercules fixed-wing aircraft and the CH-146 Griffon helicopter.

Both aircraft bring advantages and challenges, but their respective capabilities provide 424 Squadron with the flexibility to respond to a wider variety of search and rescue situations. The Hercules has the range and endurance for long-distance missions, often in the northern reaches of Canada, while the Griffon can deploy quickly for short-range missions, and as a helicopter, is able to hover in place, an important capability when operating over water.

One of each aircraft, with aircrew, is kept on a 30-minute standby posture (meaning the aircraft must be en route to its tasked location within 30 minutes of receiving a call) during normal working hours, and a two-hour posture the rest of the time. However, this standby period is adjusted so that the unit remains on high alert during statistical peak seasons such as the busy summer months.

Of course, aircraft aren’t much use without the people who operate and support them. The squadron has about 200 personnel in its ranks, including civilian contractors. Squadron personnel range from the aircrew who fly and operate the aircraft to the technicians who maintain the airframes to the administrative support staff who keep the entire squadron machine running.

Arguably the most recognizable members of the team, the search and rescue technicians (SAR techs) are paramedics who are also trained to parachute and hoist from aircraft; they are also trained to survive in extreme weather conditions and ensure their patients make it as well. Warrant Officer Aaron Bygrove is the squadron’s SAR tech leader, and is responsible for ensuring that the SAR techs on the line each day for duty are properly trained and ready to do their jobs. Having served in most SAR squadrons in the RCAF, Warrant Officer Bygrove has a great deal of experience on the line and understands the realities of his profession.

“Serving as a SAR tech is, at different times, challenging, rewarding and even heart-breaking,” he says. “But we love it.”

Although the squadron’s origins were in combat, today its chief enemies are more relevant to search and rescue: time and the elements. SAR techs can do their jobs only if they can get to the people who need help in a timely manner. Often, the aircraft is able to get to people in distress without difficulty; just as often, however, getting past the “search” to the “rescue” proves extremely hard, and sometimes the people the aircraft is looking for simply can’t be found.  

Getting to the location of people in distress as quickly as possible is paramount and, once there, the SAR techs often have to battle tough or even extreme conditions on the ground to get assistance to those who need it.

To reach their destination as quickly as possible, the on-duty aircrew has to do things differently than would be expected for non-search and rescue squadrons. Normally, every flight involves hours of planning. But when the crew has to be airborne within 30 minutes, there simply isn’t time for that. A quick plan is drawn up before departure, and any other required planning is done en route.

Because of these kinds of exigencies, training is paramount to 424 Squadron’s readiness to execute its search and rescue mission. “In the majority of RCAF daily operations, personnel train and plan for a known task or mission and then they execute the mission. In SAR, we are always training for a variety of different types of missions, and we never know when and where the next SAR mission will be,” says Major Landry. As a result, whenever the squadron isn’t actively tasked on a mission, they are training.

“We arrive at the unit at the beginning of each day with a training plan in mind,” he says, “with the understanding that we may be tasked at any time and have to immediately change from the training scenario to a real SAR mission.”

It’s clear that there are high expectations for 424 Squadron each and every day, but as is the case with any unit, there are only so many resources the squadron can bring to bear on its missions. Working with external partners is key, and 424 Squadron regularly trains and works with the coast guards of Canada and the United States, the Civilian Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA), Sauvetage et recherche aériens du Québec (SERABEC), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and local police and fire departments, to maximize capability to respond to search and rescue calls.

With a large region to help keep watch over, 424 Squadron will continue training and responding to calls. “The responsibility for SAR can’t be overstated, nor can its challenges, but the men and women of 424 Squadron have consistently risen to the occasion,” says Lieutenant-Colonel Poitras. “And we’ll keep doing that, to quote the SAR motto, So that others may live.” 

Rescue 491

On July 24, 2014, aircraft and personnel from 424 Squadron were called upon to make a difficult rescue near Wawa, Ontario. A hiker had fallen from a cliff in a remote area, and was lying on a small ledge over a deep crevasse overlooking a fall of more than 360 metres. The Hercules arrived on the scene first, just as darkness fell, and deployed two SAR techs about three-quarters of a kilometre from the hiker’s location. The standby Griffon (Rescue 491) arrived not long after, but the combination of terrain and darkness (even with the Hercules providing illumination) made an extraction impossible. Rescue 491 deployed two SAR techs to support the two already on scene. After a difficult hike in tough terrain, the SAR techs were able to reach the patient and provide life-saving medical care and support while they awaited extraction.

The next morning, Rescue 491 was back on station with a fresh crew. In a very tight space in the crevasse, the crew was able to safely hoist the patient more than 60 metres into the helicopter, followed by two of the SAR Techs, before flying the patient to hospital in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Rescue 491 returned to the site to pick up the remaining two SAR techs before returning to base.

The very difficult conditions in which this rescue was successfully executed illustrate the need for courage, perseverance and teamwork in the challenging world of search and rescue, a need that 424 Squadron meets each and every day.

The 424 Squadron personnel involved in the Wawa rescue were aircraft commander Captain David McGilvray; flight officer Captain Jean-Benoit Girard Beauseigle; flight engineer Sergeant Glenn Gallant; and SAR technicians Warrant Officer Lee Bibby and Master Corporal Brent Nolasko.

The second Griffon crew comprised aircraft commander Captain Chris Hill; flight officer Captain Rob Landriault; and flight engineer Corporal Ian Cleaton.

The CC-130 Hercules SAR techs were Master Corporal Eric Beaudoin and Master Corporal Oliver Willich.

Captain David Lavallee is a public affairs officer for 1 Canadian Air Division/Canadian NORAD Region in Winnipeg.


 

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