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We train and train, waiting for the day when we get a call. Really it is all about being prepared as none of us know when the request will come.

Somebody is lost, overdue, or God forbid, an aviation accident. 9:20 PM June 12 Our zone received a call from JRCC (Joint Rescue Coordination Centre), I got the call at 9:30pm June 12 asking if I was available to act as Spotter on a SAR mission. The information we received, was that the Hercules was on the ground at YXE (Saskatoon Airport) and ready to go in roughly 35 minutes. I said YES! and then proceeded to rush around tossing a few last items into my “run” bag and headed out for the airport.

Arriving at the airport you could hear the APU powering the Hercules (a C130H) sitting on the ramp at YXE. Four of us from the Saskatoon CASARA (Civil Aviation Search and Rescue Association) volunteer organization were on hand. Frank Richter, Brett Koshman, myself (David Balcaen) and our Zone Commander, Kyle Scott. The Hercules, designation RESCUE 337, was ready to go and the fuel truck was pulling away. The Pilot, Capt Chris Jacobson, navigator Capt Kristjan Raths, engineer Sgt Bill Johnson and co-pilot Capt Darius Mirza were wrapping up the flight planning and logistics with JRCC. We got the word, let’s go! Takeoff and departure were uneventful and two of us got to ride “up front” on the flight deck. It was quite a treat to watch the crew work together on the flight to Rankin.

The two and a half hours went by very quickly. Personally I was occupied with studying the nav instruments and the plotting the navigator was doing. It was very familiar to me as he was doing exactly what we do on our training and real missions. The crew had been on a training mission all day when they were re-tasked. Curiously, their aircraft are no different than anyone else’s. Comm one radio crapped out, no transmit. The weather RADAR required several “pull the breaker” restarts and never did perform reliably. Also, it appeared that during start up, the navigation power buss dropped voltage, and the navigator groaned as he would have to lay in the information again. Like I said, no different than any other aircraft, things quit and you have to make the best of it. Agility, creativity and flexibility are obviously key to working with an older aircraft. This crew worked exceptionally well together . Half an hour from the target we were outfitted with inflatable life jackets and were given our rotation list for the spotting.

We descended to the search height of 1000 feet with only minor turbulence and the crew worked away at opening the back doors and locking the Plexiglas view panels into place. The seat for the observer looked like something out of a Buck Rogers movie with a bizarre riveted pyramidal base. We then descended to what looked like 500 feet above the sea level.

The spotters worked on 20 minute rotations. The SAR TECHS went first, then the Casara spotters.

The information we had was that three hunters were overdue a day and one half on a hunt. They had snowmobiled to open water, then launched their aluminum skiff. Ground crews had found the parked snow machines. The expectation was that they had chosen a safe place to wait out the storm that was over the area.

The first activity was to fly a shore crawl around the island, taking the ice into account. Sitting in the back of the Herc, all you could do is wonder what was next! It handles like a giant Super Cub. The tail of the craft simply hurtled from side to side as we continually banked 45 degrees following the shoreline. Then we lined up for the CLA’s first line. On the second path of the CLA Frank spotted a boat. The Herc circled around to allow a better look. Two SAR TECHS leaned over Frank as he pointed out what he had seen. A makeshift hut was visible, the boat matched the information we had. We did a couple of more passes and on one of them you could see some fellows walking outside of the hut. We had woken them up, obviously, at 2:30am. It is looking like the search is to have a happy ending. We then began many passes over the site.

Loadmaster MCpl Brian Perry began readying a radio to drop to the hunters. The SAR technicians expertly tossed a two way radio to the chaps below. We could very quickly hear them saying “We are all okay” but they did not seem to hear the question over the radio of “what are your names?” It was decided there could be a radio failure so another radio was tossed out the back. and this time “Oh, I can hear you now.” The names were identified, “we have lots of fuel, lots of food and we are just waiting out the storm. Thanks a lot, see you later!”

IFR clearance via HF radio from 900 miles away. So that was it. Mission completed. Just like our CASARA missions, the crew started on the NOCAL (a report of what was seen and done) and communicated this to JRCC via telephone patch on HF SSB (Single Side Band radio, High Frequency) and the pilot and copilot started to figure out their departure procedure, fuel on board, destination etc. Best I could determine the HF Auto-patch was handled out of Trenton by the military. We were below the cloud base, so IFR had to be filed. This proved a problem as RANKIN RADIO did not provide this service, and suggested we call ARCTIC RADIO on 126.7. They did not answer. Hmmm. Back to the HF SSB and a call to Edmonton to close the previous plan and file a new one. Aside from the Mickey Mouse acoustics of SSB it worked just fine. HF SSB is great, offering more than 1000 mile range most days. While rarely used in this day and age of cellular communication and satellite links, it’s fast, inexpensive and long distance range still make it a useful tool. All transoceanic flights still use HF radio for air traffic control and position reports.

Continual Training

I was impressed with the pilot’s continual training on the return flight. A true leader, he kept everyone engaged in review, debrief and general discussion on how to refine and improve. All of this was done in-between the regular chores and communication of IFR flight and communication with JRCC a couple of times. The entire crew, and even us spotters, were asked and given a chance to speak. The pilot was emphatic at not “pulling rank” in this team effort and requested not to be called “sir” at one point. This was a vivid demonstration of how to manage a team through empowerment, all towards never missing anything. Not one moment was wasted. Safety in aviation is never a one man or woman show, it takes all eyes at all times. We were returned to YXE safe and sound at approximately 5:45 AM extremely tired but filled with excitement and ready to tell anyone who would listen about the night we had just experienced. The crew while working on a 13 hour day, quickly off loaded us, made some phone calls and then were on their way to Edmonton to finish off their shift. Just another day in the life of Military SAR.

Local readiness showed

The four of us that showed up for the mission were at the airport in plenty of time. The SAR crew noticed this and thanked us. We each had our “run bag” with essentials packed. None of us did anything that needed correction. (Whew!) It was obvious that we were trained and current. At the end of the mission the pilot said if he ever needed spotters again he knew where to come!! The four of us were excited and privileged to be able to serve fellow Canadians in this simple manner. This is what Casara Does.


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