Search and rescue means changing priorities in an instant

News Article / September 8, 2020

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The Canadian Armed Forces search and rescue community is used to getting called on in a moment’s notice to assist law enforcement. Even a routine training flight can take on the urgency of a rescue, as the following story from the perspective of then Officer Cadet, Victor Weston illustrates. This incident from 2007 was originally published as RCAF news article When Routine Training Operations Turn into Life-Saving Rescues, but is no less valid in 2020. Being able to adjust plans, and be available around the clock is the reality of a military SAR Tech.  

By Officer Cadet (now captain) Victor Weston

I expected a routine flight as I walked into the briefing room. Instead, I was greeted by Colonel Ploughman, the Wing Commander of 12 Wing, Lieutenant Colonel Michaud, the Commanding Officer of 423 Maritime Helicopter (MH) Squadron, Captain Truscott, and Master Warrant Officer Hughes. We started the briefing by outlining the type of mission, the aircraft we would fly, and possible scenarios that could occur during this flight.

After the brief, we headed out of the hangar to our aircraft, CH124 Sea King tail number 426, which was sitting on the tarmac. Just like in a flying movie, we approached the aircraft with our vests over one shoulder and helmet in hand. I strapped myself in the back of the aircraft, and the crew began conducting the start procedures.

Once airborne, I was invited to stand behind the pilots to observe the flight operations.

We started the mission with radar-assisted approaches to ships. Descending into fog, Col Ploughman and LCol Michaud flew the aircraft in accordance with the directions given from Capt. Truscott and MWO Hughes, who were operating the radar.

With the radar, we tracked a ship right to the edge of the fog where it slowly crept into view.

Before we could carry on with the next part of the training flight, we suddenly heard the Halifax Coast guard responding to an emergency. We were unable to receive the distress signal itself because it was so weak, but the pilots immediately diverted towards the distressed ship. We spent the next forty minutes travelling and receiving information about the vessel, a sailing ship with two souls on board. They were taking on water, and one of the crew had substantial injuries.

We arrived on scene at about the same time as a CC130 Hercules, which orbited the scene at 5000 feet coordinating communication with all concerned parties. We started our search pattern, but a dense cloud below 400 feet hampered our efforts. The crew eventually found a hole in the cloud and descended down to attempt a hover above the water, but were unsuccessful.

Following the coastline to try and find an alternate means of locating the vessel in distress, my heart raced as we passed by the ragged Nova Scotia coastline. The pilots carefully manoeuvred the aircraft, maintaining visual contact with the shoreline. It certainly gave me a reality check about the nature of roles and responsibilities of the men and women in the Canadian Forces.

Finally, we received radio traffic from a civilian fishing vessel indicating they were able to locate and rescue the stranded sailors. We then climbed out of the fog but remained on station in case a MEDEVAC was required. Once released, we headed for home.

With the SAR over, LCol Michaud hopped out of the co-pilot seat and I was invited to fly. Once getting strapped in and having the seat adjusted, I was given a lesson on how to fly the helicopter, which is slightly more complex than flying a fixed wing aircraft. I flew the aircraft, making turns, climbing, and descending. 

All too soon; however, we had to return to Shearwater.  I returned to the back of the aircraft, and the pilots brought us in for a landing.  Because we were going to hot fuel and another crew was going to take the aircraft, we were greeted by a fire truck and a fuel truck. With the blades still rotating, techs refuelled the aircraft. A new crew entered and took over the controls as we exited the aircraft, taxiing down the runway for another mission.

It was just another day for the operational personnel of 12 Wing.  For me, however, my second flight in a Sea King helicopter brought home the fact that even the most routine of flights can turn into lifesaving rescues in the blink of an eye.

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