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A fighting chance to survive

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Students on the aircrew Arctic survival course work in dusk-like light conditions to dig shelters into the face of a massive snowdrift near Resolute Bay, Nunavut. Credit: DND Students on the aircrew Arctic survival course work in dusk-like light conditions to dig shelters into the face of a massive snowdrift near Resolute Bay, Nunavut. Credit: DND

As you pull yourself from the wreckage of your aircraft, the wind howls menacingly across a frozen landscape that has more in common with the moon than anything found on Earth.

The last weather report you received before leaving base told you that the temperature in that area would be dropping to minus 40 degrees Celsius, which feels like minus 60 with the wind chill.

The time is just after noon, but you are surrounded by darkness; it might as well be midnight. In the gloom, you struggle to don your winter clothing and sort through the meagre assortment of tools you have at your disposal to build some kind of shelter to wait out the hours—or days—before help arrives.

Return to Arctic survival training

It’s a grim scenario, but one that is a distinct possibility for every Royal Canadian Air Force member operating in Canada’s North. This is why 2 Canadian Air Division has brought back Arctic survival training for aircrew through the Canadian Forces School of Survival and Aeromedical Training (CFSSAT), located at 17 Wing Winnipeg, Man.

The course is a blend of classroom and field instruction; the field portion was completed at Crystal City, a Canadian Forces training area near Resolute Bay, Nunavut. Two 10-day sessions of the course were conducted consecutively from January 11 to 27.

The Canadian Forces School of Search and Rescue has run a similar course for search and rescue (SAR) technician candidates at Crystal City since 1996, but this marked the first time the course had been offered to aircrew since 1995.

Northern operations on the rise

“Canada’s North is a major priority for the Government of Canada, and as such, our operations in that region are increasing,” said Brigadier-General Martin Galvin, commander of 2 Canadian Air Division, which is responsible for RCAF training. He and the Division’s chief warrant officer, CWO Luc Tremblay, travelled to Resolute Bay to check out the training.

“As more and more RCAF aircraft take to the skies over the Arctic, we want to make sure that the aircrews operating there most often have a baseline of skills necessary to survive in that environment,” BGen Galvin said.

The RCAF is very active in the North, carrying out aerial sovereignty, reconnaissance and surveillance patrols, conducting search and rescue operations, supporting annual training and sovereignty operations, and providing airlift and re-supply support.

The downside of this increased activity is the increased risk of an aircraft crash in the Arctic, which is exactly the scenario this course aimed to train aircrew for.

Survival skills and equipment use

“Basically, our goal is to give students the skills they need for a fighting chance to survive in an Arctic environment while they wait for rescue,” said Sergeant Bill Clouter, a SAR technician who was one of the course instructors from CFSSAT.

Under the guidance of instructors who have years of experience as SAR technicians and in the combat arms, and with the benefit of traditional knowledge courtesy of Inuit instructors, 43 students learned the basics of Arctic survival.

The course’s learning points ran the gamut from tips and pointers to practical hands-on training that included how to build shelters such as snow caves and igloos. The students also learned how to signal their location to searchers by using equipment such as flares, as well as snow, rocks and other elements found in the environment.

Perhaps one of the most important things students learned about was the survival equipment that they carry in their aircraft – and how to use it. Captain Iain Hannam, a CF-18 Hornet pilot with 409 Tactical Fighter Squadron, 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alta., knows that the gear stored in his ejection seat is different from that carried in a CC-130 Hercules, CH-146 Griffon or CP-140 Aurora.

“The CF-18 equipment is, on the whole, smaller and more limited,” he said. “This course was an opportunity to try out that equipment in the environment where you’d need it most, rather than have to use it for the first time in a real emergency. That’s a part of the training I found very valuable.”

Students also learned how to avoid getting snow on their clothing (which melts and reduces the gear’s insulation value), as well the suggested speeds at which people should work, and how to layer appropriately to avoid sweating (which contributes to more rapid loss of body heat during periods of inactivity). Though these may seem like minor or even trivial details, in an environment as unforgiving as the Arctic, they can make the difference between life and death.

Ready for reality

Not surprisingly, the greatest challenge on the course was the cold, especially for the students who had to work and sleep outdoors for most of a week. With the mercury usually running between minus 35 and minus 40 degrees, plus high winds and blowing snow, the weather was a major dose of Arctic reality.

“This is a tough course, there is no doubt about it, but the truth is that misery is the best instructor,” said Sgt Clouter.

“It goes without saying that no one likes the difficult aspects of the experience, but that’s an important part of what we want the students to learn. Once they’ve completed the training, they’ll know just what they’ll be up against in that kind of situation, and will be physically and mentally prepared for it.”

Training goals

Sgt Clouter’s perspective was shared by the students, including Major Clint Mowbray, commanding officer of 103 Search and Rescue Squadron, 9 Wing Gander, N.L., who was a student on the first session.

“I compare it to the underwater egress training—it’s unpleasant at times, but once you finish it, you realize very quickly that what you’ve just learned could save your life someday,” Maj Mowbray said.

Major Yves Soulard, commandant of CFSSAT, said that the intent is to train up to 48 students per year. While it would be ideal to have all aircrew trained to this standard, the course is very labour and resource-intensive.

“While we can’t offer this course to all aircrew in the RCAF, our goal is to train those personnel whose squadrons operate frequently in the North,” he said. “The more people that have this training, the better able we are to operate in the Arctic, so we encourage all aircrew members to speak with their supervisors and commanding officers about taking the training in the future.”

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