When you are offered an opportunity to go on a training mission with the CFB Comox Search and Rescue squadron, it feels much like a combination of winning the lottery, getting to eat free at your favorite restaurant and being a kid again, complete with excitement butterflying in your stomach. Having only set foot on military ground once before, I had a feeling the day would unwrap itself like a present.
Comox was welcomed that morning with inclement weather, snow had fallen and there was a good chance of rain. I hoped this would not alter the plans for the day, as I was eager to see the Buffalo up close and in action. During the morning brief, we were told that snow warnings would persist for many coastal areas. Vancouver Island was located right on the edge of a TROWAL (trough of warm air aloft) causing outflow winds. Winds were at 25 knots but expected to drop off throughout the day. Cloud cover was broken overcast with a ceiling between 1500-3000 feet and 1.5 miles of visibility. The temperature was a balmy 2 degrees, which in January is about as nice as you can get in Canada. In the time before our departure, I was toured around the hanger by 2nd Lieutenant Jarvis, who gave me a quick education on the Buffalo and its duties. I learned that military SAR is primarily responsible for aiding mariners and aviators. Ground searches are mainly left to the capable hands of local Ground SAR and RCMP. Considering the tasks, the best tools available to the military are aircraft like the Buffalo, built in 1960, which is sturdy at a length of 79 feet, a wingspan of 96 feet and a height of 28 feet. Working in tandem with the Cormorant helicopter, they ensure rescues on the coast are as safe and speedy as possible. Buffalo are the main deployers of assistance, anything from gear and supplies to SAR Techs who jump to the aid of those in need. They are faster than the helicopter, with an enroute phase of 220 knots/hr which enables them to cover the ground quickly during both searches and when transporting casualties to hospital. When deploying aid the speed drops to 100-120 knots/hr.
Canada has three primary SAR aircraft. The Cormorant helicopter is versatile and reliable, ideal for rescues on land and sea. The Hercules is a fast, long-range airplane that like the Buffalo delivers emergency supplies and personnel via air drops. But out on the west coast, the Buffalo is the SAR airplane of choice as the coastal terrain makes demands on aircraft that the Buffalo has been able to meet. For instance, when in STOL (short take off and landing configuration) it can take off and land in only 1000 feet. The wings have been designed with no slats and the flaps are adjustable to 30 degrees, making it able to gain and loose elevation very quickly. The Buffalo’s tail acts as a third wing, which provides pitch control that can help create lift and stability when the center of gravity is rearward. There are two bubble windows on each side of the tail section called spotter seats that enable crewmembers to easily look 180 degrees from inside the aircraft. Usual Supplies include pumps that are deployed to ships taking on water, oxygen canisters, stretchers, survival gear and rations, rescue toboggans and four life rafts that can each hold up to 10-20 people. Once the SAR Techs get their gear on board the space can become quite restricted. I was jokingly told that SAR personnel are ‘the perfect guest; they can expand to fill any space perfectly’. I got the impression that they WILL fill the space they are given… and they need to; SAR must be prepared for any circumstance. Anything that enters or exits the Buffalo does so via the rear ramp. The ramp when lowered is only a few feet off the ground and makes it easier for heavy and bulky gear to be loaded. It is also very handy when in the air, providing a clear, safe exit for both supplies and men.
The Buffalo regularly works with a crew of six. In the cockpit there is the pilot, whose main responsibility is to fly the plane, and the aircraft commander, who communicates on the radio to the flight engineer and navigator and makes the decisions about where they will go. Between them and slightly to the rear the flight engineer sits on a seat that is easily folded away when not in use. The flight engineer is like a conductor who keeps the team working together. He is a liaison, communicating between the ground and flight crew and makes sure the aircraft is mechanically sound. The navigator sits at a station just to the rear of the cockpit and uses a computer to interpret location and plot a course. However, it is not all modern technology. When flying in the high north, a sextant, screwed into the ceiling, can be used to verify location using the stars. With these tools they can easily navigate anywhere in the world. The other crewmembers are the SAR Techs, the ones who sit in the spotter seats and scan below for a sign of the missing or injured. They are also the ones who drop supplies or jump from the plane in order to assist when needed. SAR Techs are paramedic II qualified – their primary duty is to get to injured people quickly, whether it is by jumping or hoisting, and to perform life-saving skills until those injured people can be moved to higher health care. They can mean the difference between life and death. I quickly and easily understood that the SAR crew works as a team, or else it just doesn’t work.
I first met flight engineer Cpl Tom Girardin who gave me a safety briefing. It became apparent that his no-nonsense approach to his job was echoed by every other crewmember, though they were all able to be lighthearted and relaxed with each other while at work. This made my experience all the better, as I felt comfortable and welcome among them, able to appreciate their awareness of rank while maintaining a mutual respect for every crewmember on board. I was next introduced to Capt Ryan Port and Maj Mike Brush who were pilot and aircraft commander respectively for the day’s flight. Once I crossed the ramp and went into the Buffalo, Maj Todd Sharp who was navigating along with Capt Brad White, very quickly welcomed me and explained the manoeuvres that would be practiced.
The morning task was to run search grids as practice for the pilots and navigator so there were no SAR Techs on board. The sun was trying to come out and the winds were a gentle 5 knots but we still expected a bit of buffeting. Once airborne, Cpl Girardin soon invited me to the cockpit where I had a great view of the clouds and ocean along with the occasional boat. Though the view was great, I had to leave them to their work and returned to the rear of the aircraft where Maj Sharp was preparing to drop smoke. Usually this task would fall to one of the SAR Techs, but in their absence, he was practicing and familiarizing himself with this skill. Dropping smoke means that a canister of chemical is thrown from a small side door on the plane and once it makes contact with water produces a plume of white smoke so the crew can establish a starting point for their search. Three patterns were practiced, first was called “creeping line ahead”. This pattern covers a square area in vertical and horizontal lines, moving along in a ladder type pattern. I imagine it would look like a mouse that might scurry up one side of a ladder, move across the rung, continue up the opposite side to the next rung and repeat this until at the top. The next pattern was a “sector search” where the area is broken up into a pie shape with the plane traveling across the diameter and around the circumference to the next crossing where it would travel the diameter again, about 45 degrees from the previous one. This is repeated until the entire circle has been flown over. The final pattern was called an “expanding square” that starts from a central location where the turns are plentiful and sharp until it expands to the point where the straight lines traveled are long… but the turns are just as sharp! At this point I was more than ready for a break, my inner gyroscope was messing with my stomach, and mercifully we landed.
After a stop for lunch, one that fortunately stayed with me for the rest of the day, we were airborne again. This time SAR Techs Sgt Mike Cox, MCpl Martin Tessier and MCpl Billy Ternes were along to practice live drops. They were all business, working quickly as a team and with skill that made it appear effortless. The Buffalo worked at altitudes between 150- 300 feet and made repeating passes over the targets, dropping streamers to test the winds for subsequent supply drops such as radios and survival gear. The SAR Techs were attached to a guy wire in the airplane by a monkey tail, a length of webbing that is clipped to their harness so they could safely work on the edge of the ramp while deploying the bundles. The drops were quick and efficient; the time to prepare each was only the few minutes it took for the plane to circle around for another pass. The bundles are attached to a static line that deploys them once they are a safe distance away. Things got really exciting when I was invited to put on my own monkey tail to take pictures from only a few feet away from the action.
The final mission for the day was a personnel free fall; the other way a jumper can exit the plane other than on a static line. We picked up two other SAR Techs, Sgt Rob Beauchamp and MCpl Stephane Richard who also needed a jump to keep current in their training. As the Buffalo rose to 4500 feet, the men put on their gear and checked each other over to ensure everything was right. Then they cloistered by one side window and viewed the area where they would make the jump. Accuracy is very important with any drop, as they need the gear and men to be in close proximity; so precious minutes are never wasted. The five men went into formation on the ramp, three in front and two behind, facing each other and linking arms. When the command was given to jump, they fell away from each other and the plane I had to remind myself to breathe. It was a beautiful sight; the figures in orange flightsuits stood out strongly against the green and blue of earth and sky as they fell. I thought about the SAR motto, “That others may live” and I was struck at how those few orange figures were often the difference between life and death for someone down below and that without these practice jumps, those rescues could never take place.
The day of practice wound to a close and I was taken to the ground, overwhelmed by adrenalin and the immensity of what I’d learned over the day. It was a day I’ll never forget. I saw the amazing skill with which the team works together and got a sense from the few hours I spent with them, that these people did their jobs with passion and a giving heart. They are after all the ones who risk their own lives to rescue those which whom the sea has treated roughly and find the missing or lost from the sky. They are the last resort for many whose luck has run out. For me, the day did in fact unwrap like a present. But the gift was twofold… not only was it a memorable day in a Buffalo, but I found a new appreciation for Canada’s Air Force SAR personnel and the efficiency and determination with which they worked.
Story by Reyna Waller, photos by Curtis Peters, Aviation.ca