Practice makes perfect on Exercise Southern Breeze

News Article / March 3, 2017

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By Captain Mathew Strong

The iconic orange, yellow and red of the Royal Canadian Air Force`s cadre of search and rescue (SAR) specialists have been over the skies of Miami, Florida, since February 6, 2017, honing their water and boat rescue skills.

Exercise Southern Breeze, held at United States Coast Guard Air Station Miami in Opa Locka, Florida, wraps up this weekend.

During the exercise, pilots, SAR technicians (techs), flight engineers and aircraft technicians from all four CH-146 Griffon SAR units (417, 439 and 444 Combat Support Squadrons and 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron) are working toward improving proficiency in this uniquely challenging rescue environment, all in an effort to ensure they and their equipment are ready to respond to what could very well be a life threatening situation one day.

With an average of six missions per day, there’s no shortage of work, and throughout the entire exercise, everyone came together to get the job done.

“As the exercise progresses I don’t foresee any slowdowns in operations, definitely a few glitches here and there, but nothing our technicians cannot handle. The weather has been great, and the forecast continues to look great, which will help for the smooth operation of this magnitude,” said Major Steve Siket, commanding officer of 439 Combat Support Squadron, and Exercise Southern Breeze’s air task force commander, during the exercise.

The Miami environment enables the units to carry out an extremely high number of rescue sequences in an extremely short period of time, thus ensuring every member of the team is ready to perform at their best once warmer weather begins in Canada.

“By the time we finish here in Florida and all our crews are back home, the spring thaw will have either just started, or be around the corner, which means boat traffic on our coastal and inland waterways is surely to pick up,” explained Major Siket,

“For some of us, it could be four or more months since we performed water and boat rescues. Due to their complexities, we want to ensure we are as ready as we can be for the start the season.”

He further described the condition known as ‘skill fade’, adding that “although regular flying is still conducted throughout the winter months in Canada, the fine-tuned skills required for a boat or water rescue are impossible to practice on a regular basis.” 

Participants

 About 120 personnel (up to 50 personnel at any one time) and three CH-146 Griffon helicopters deployed on the exercise. Exercise personnel and equipment were from the following units:

  • 439 Combat Support Squadron, 3 Wing Bagotville, Quebec
  • 417 Combat Support Squadron, 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta
  • 444 Combat Support Squadron, 5 Wing Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador
  • 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron and the Transport Standards and Evaluation Team, 8 Wing Trenton, Ontario

Repetition leads to perfection

Just as musicians who haven’t picked up their instrument in several weeks or months need time and practice to return to their best, pilots, SAR techs and flight engineers do too.

This is why an environment where multiple flights and practice rescues can take place is so important for training. By performing the same movement over and over again, as a group, the crews learn each other’s nuances and can better anticipate how they will react to any number of real-life scenarios.

In the beginning, a newer crew may have difficulty lining the helicopter up for the placement of a SAR tech onto a stationary boat. Add to this the eventuality of the boat moving, in rough waters, in poor visibility or even at night, and it is easy to see why intimate knowledge of as many scenarios as possible is important. Then the crews need to do all this as quickly as possible.

“For example, when a SAR tech is lowered to someone in distress, they’re subjected to extreme levels of wind chill caused by the downwash of the rotor blades in the helicopter, making the operation that much more stressful and dangerous – not only to the SAR tech but to the victim as well,” explained Captain Rob Hannam, a pilot with 417 Combat Support Squadron and a participant in the exercise.

“By practicing our tactics as much and as many times as possible, we ultimately become faster at carrying out a rescue sequence, which not only helps the SAR techs, but the member of the public we are rescuing,” he said.

The warm water environment of Miami permits the SAR crews to conduct multiple water rescues over an extended period of time. If a similar exercise were to be conducted in open Canadian waters at this time of year, with even with the best dry-suit technology, crews would only be able to safely practice a rescue sequence for a few minutes at a time, followed by a significant period of rest to allow SAR techs an opportunity to avoid hypothermia. 

“The warmer climate in the southern United States is vital to our goal of not only practicing our techniques, but also to teaching and honing skills we don’t necessarily have the opportunity to work on back home,” confirmed Major Siket.

Mentorship and the sharing of ideas

The SAR based CH-146 Griffon fleet is one of the smallest among a large and extremely diverse fleet of helicopters.

Once pilots, flight engineers, SAR techs and technicians from the three combat support squadrons and 424 Squadron complete their general training both on the CH-146 and within their field, they rely on in-house training to prepare them for operations on the SAR-configured Griffon.

This is where the Transport and Rescue Standards and Evaluation Team (TRSET) come in; they ensure a common standard is adhered to across a variety of fleets within the RCAF, including the SAR Griffon.

“The Griffon-based SAR community is extremely specialized, and not that big,” said Sergeant Jerry Whyte, a CH-146 Griffon search and rescue flight engineer who is currently assigned to TRSET at 1 Canadian Air Division in Winnipeg.

“When a junior pilot or flight engineer comes off the type course in [Canadian Forces Base] Gagetown [New Brunswick], they are prepared to handle the basics of the airframe, but to push the machine, and their team to the level of SAR operations requires development through mentorship and continual training at the squadron level.”

In his 14 years as a flight engineer on the Griffon, he has seen a number of outstanding crews come and go within the community, but in his new role at TRSET, Sergeant Whyte has noticed the challenges of overcoming personnel fluctuations within the Griffon SAR community first hand.

“This exercise is one specific method we use to capitalize on the mentorship model. Although water and boat qualifications are not a requirement for all our Griffon SAR squadrons, it is vital that each pilot, SAR tech and flight engineer is, at the very least, exposed to the operations as much as possible,” he explained.

This year – or even over the next few years – members from all four Griffon SAR squadrons may find themselves in Cold Lake, Alberta, or Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, where boat and water qualifications are not required. Over the following one or two years, as personnel changes occur throughout the community, a member may be required to move to Trenton, Ontario, where they do require water and boat qualifications, or Bagotville, Quebec, where this qualification is required on an occasional basis.

Both Major Siket and Sergeant Whyte point out that Exercise Southern Breeze, at the very least, introduces everyone to the challenge, making interchangeability one of the key ‘value added benefits’ to the exercise.

“During the first week of the exercise every flight engineer in attendance was SAR qualified, but over the course of the entire deployment, we will see a number Griffon flight engineers with general qualifications come through Opa Locka, and work alongside SAR-qualified flight engineers to first be exposed to, then practice, and then hopefully become proficient in water and boat hoisting and cabin preparation work,” said Sergeant Whyte.

Exercise planners do their best to bring full crews (an aircraft commander, a flying officer, a flight engineer and a SAR tech) from each of the four Squadrons on the exercise, but this year due to priority manning at the home units, this was not possible, so the decision was made to bring a mixture of full and mixed crews to Florida.

The added benefit of mixed crews is new crew members become exposed to tactics and methods alongside experienced members, further adding to the training value.

The future

The future of the CH-146 Griffon SAR community depends on the key themes of Exercise Southern Breeze: realistic and intensive training and mentorship.

RCAF personnel who depend on CH-146 Griffon SAR crews, and the Canadian public can all take comfort in knowing that if called upon, this group of highly skilled professionals will be ready to answer, where and when needed.

 That others might live!

 

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