This was the opportunity of a lifetime. Dano Pendygrasse and I visited 19 Wing, Canadian Forces Base Comox, to spend time with 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron. Bright orange jumpsuits and sexy yellow airframes (aircraft) aside, the day was a humbling experience. After ten hours embedded in the daily life of a military search and rescue team I was left with a roar in my head from machinery, deep respect for the discipline of routine procedure, and the potential for honest personal growth.
19 Wing Comox covers a large area. It includes operational squadrons, national training schools, cadet training, an airstrip and a maintenance squadron. The base is orderly and compact, a mix of new buildings alongside sections of aging infrastructure, a metaphor for our times perhaps. The naming of our Royal Canadian Air Force harkens back to a different era as well. But what really speaks loudly are the details, right down to walking only on designated pathways and crossing at marked intersections. Duty, history and protocol permeate everything.
442 Transport and Rescue Squadron
Captain Trevor Reid escorted us to the 442 Squadron buildings, greeted along the way by other servicemen, salutes and "Good Morning, Sir." Not to dwell on rank, but on a typical BC day we don't encounter green uniforms, insignias and dress caps. To someone like me, who tends to be pretty lax about rules and strongly resistant to following any particular code of conduct or way of thinking, the military environment was a bit of a shock. Never having lived near a base, or with any close friends or family members in active service, it has been easy to keep the idea at arm's length. So when we first stepped out of the car and had to visit the Military Police for clearance, it became really clear that this visit was not casual and we were not peers. We were guests.
In Canada, as in most countries, Search and Rescue (SAR) is a multi-faceted activity that involves numerous federal, provincial, municipal and volunteer agencies. It's not as simple as calling in a missing backcountry skier and a helicopter shows up. The nature of any search determines who has the lead. Air and marine search and rescue missions are the responsibility of the federal government, including the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and the Coast Guard. Ground searches begin with volunteer groups and/or police forces. Aircraft crews from 442 are not called out unless it involves: 1) aircraft; 2) marine rescue; or 3) humanitarian service to assist in ground missions beyond the scope of other agencies.
Pre-flight briefing of flight crew and SAR Techs.
The Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre Victoria (JRCC Victoria) coordinates rescue responses that involve the Canadian military and Coast Guard. Behind the scenes, this network of people makes critical contributions to the safety and success of each mission. Manned 24 hours a day, the JRCC has a jurisdiction that covers approximately 920,000 km2 of mountainous terrain and coastline in Yukon and BC, plus 560,000km2 of the Pacific Ocean extending to approximately 600 nautical miles offshore. This rugged and often inaccessible terrain, severe weather, and large expanses of sparsely populated areas make this the most demanding region in the country. Search and Rescue Technicians (SAR Techs) have to be on their game, as do the pilots, navigator and flight engineers.
SAR Techs are members of the Royal Canadian Air Force with a rank of Corporal or higher and a minimum of 4 years in Canadian Armed Forces, in any trade. An elite group of land and sea survival experts who specialize in Arctic rescue, parachuting, mountain climbing and helicopter rescue techniques, they are trained to operate boats and carry out underwater rescues using SCUBA gear; they are full-on paramedics certified in advanced trauma life-support – the superheroes of search and rescue.
Inside 442 however, the atmosphere was a place of work not adventure: the briefing room was tight; work stations were tidy, as were all the equipment rooms, lockers and storage shelves. Everyone was relaxed, friendly and humble. They spoke of the day in terms of probable flight plans, meeting currencies (required jumps, dives etc) and training needs. Group decisions were made before we set out, with contingencies and an exit strategy for us in the event of a call – the first of many examples of the flexibility and responsiveness of the team. Capt Peter Wright, Cormorant pilot and Aircraft Commander: "Know your limits, be creative."
Flying in the Buffalo was a blend of work truck with luxury vehicle. The Buffalo was chosen for its short take-off and landing requirements, maneuverability and capacity; it is used to parachute rescuers, drop supplies, flares and smoke markers, as well as functioning as a communications platform. The one we flew in had the original manufacturer's plate dated 1969, yet it was immaculate and reverently maintained. A meat and potatoes kind of airframe stocked with a chef's kitchen: scuba tanks, diving equipment, Arctic survival gear, inflatable life rafts, boxed food supplies, first aid kits, stretchers and parachutes. Up front, the two pilots chatted about hiking trips, restaurants and fish stocks in between reports from the flight engineer about wind speeds, temperature and pressure readings. As we drew closer to Tofino where the jumps would take place, spotting and recon tours plus information exchanged between the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight engineer and SAR Tech Team Lead resulted in a revised plan due to changing cloud cover. The safety of the jumpers and their willingness to go ahead was their decision, but overall the airframe operated as a single unit.
Collective experience, collaborative decision; ultimately however, it is the Aircraft Commander (AC) who makes the final call and is accountable for the actions of the entire team. Unlike other military pilots their role is not tactical or stealthy, although there can be significantly more danger. Typically they fly under the worst possible weather conditions, into remote and challenging environments. For these reasons, SAR pilots have more latitude in what they can attempt. In general, the extensive training required to become part of the SAR team translates into a diverse wealth of experience on board.
Buddy checks – each piece of safety equipment is physically touched before each jump.
Lunch was in the mess hall. It was interesting to be a civilian. The label was only in my head, but I felt it and the significance of being entirely ignorant of this reality. Military personnel are government employees; sure, but to say they work for us is totally inaccurate. They serve for the better good. How that intention may miss the mark or become corrupted by government is not for this discussion and it was not mentioned. The primary motivation for everyone we spoke to was to master their task.
Cormorant helicopter First Officer (co-pilot) Capt Amanda Lauder was new on the base. She took us out in the afternoon, along with AC Capt Peter Wright, to practice confined area landings. Bright yellow, with several windows and a massive central rotor, being inside the Cormorant would be like flying in a schoolbus. It's huge, loud and utilitarian. It's also exceptionally nimble. Lucky for us, Amanda was tasked with flying through narrow valleys and setting the big bird down on a riverbed and a patch of snow, both surrounded by tight trees. We flew in close range over spectacular terrain, circling for reconnaissance and evaluation before any action took place. Again the entire crew interacted, with the SAR Techs and Flight Engineer acting as spotters for Amanda to safely negotiate the helicopter through obstacles. From the open side door, visuals on the right side of the machine were reported, while the bubble window on the left side gave visual clearance on the rear and central rotors. Flight Engineer MCpl Rainier Roedger supplied constant information and visual clearance on the underside every 10 feet until landing. The helicopter was finessed side to side and from tip to tail, forward and back, into a level set down on the middle of the target.
To report the day as impressive doesn't do justice to the teamwork and the skill we witnessed. These were controlled scenarios. From my perspective it was hot, awkward a lot of times and there were opportunities to shortcut procedures, but none were taken. The importance of repeating every single step with the appropriate verbal communication was to save time and lives in an urgent, chaotic situation where nothing was predictable.
It's hard repetitive work that requires some sacrifices. Not everyone has a family. The hours can be disruptive, training sessions require being away from home and individuals are transferred every 4-5 years on average. Those who choose to accept the risks of SAR missions face extreme danger not out of bravery, but because they are the ones on the scene; others' lives depend upon their immediate actions. SAR teams trust that their training, experience and teamwork will see them safely through these perilous situations.
19 Wing Operations employs mechanics, weather forecasters, administration, operations people, traffic controllers; a long and varied list of trades with an infrastructure that we don't immediately associate with search and rescue missions. It may seem that it's not personal. When a SAR team shows up however, it is invariably personal and every person on the scene represents an entire off-site crew that is looking after their well-being while help is administered. SAR Techs do not mobilize for the hell of it. And on the receiving end of their missions, they are greeted with desperation, hope, gratitude and great relief.
SAR Tech motto graces the wall above the locker and equipment room.
SAR Tech motto: Without regard for my personal comfort or self advancement, to the best of my ability and to the limitations of my physical and psychological endurance, I solemnly pledge to make every effort to return to safety, those victims of disaster entrusted to my care by the assignment of the mission to which I have consented. These things I shall do: 'That others may live'.
At times, we do need others to act for us. It is not irresponsible or selfish to admit this. The most accountable and humanitarian thing we can do is face our vulnerability and support those who assume where we cannot. Somewhere along the way we have learned to overlook the most basic life-saving truth: We are all in this together. Let our actions be the first indication.