Eyes in the skies: A visit from the Canadian Forces

This is part one in a two-part series on Civilian Air Search and Rescue training at the Canadian Rockies International Airport.

Cranbrook Civilian Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA) member Connor Wigen practices spotting out the window of a Canadian Forces Search and Rescue Buffalo aircraft on December 2 at the Canadian Rockies International Airport. The aircraft was left grounded by a snowstorm in the area that day

It was the exact nature of Search and Rescue that left Cranbrook’s Civilian Air Search and Rescue Association members grounded on December 2.

The six CASARA spotters were left staring longingly at the yellow Buffalo aircraft, grounded at the Canadian Rockies International Airport after a snowstorm blew into the area the night before. But it also meant the Canadian Forces SAR Tech crews were grounded as well, and Warrant Officer Jean Tremblay was happy to share that time with the local members and one very lucky reporter.

There was little military formality, with “Mean” Jean Tremblay talking off the cuff with new CASARA spotters, hoping to get certified to ride in the bright yellow CF Buffalo aircraft that sat with a dusting of snow on the Cranbrook runway. It had traveled from 442 Transport & Rescue Squadron Comox to participate in training operations but was stymied by blowing snow and white-out conditions.

“Sometimes we’re stuck on the ground and we can’t go search for people because of weather like this,” Tremblay said, speaking in a thick Québécois accent. The 33-year veteran of the Canadian Forces changed to SAR in 1984 and has been working out of Comox for the past 12 years. Some SAR Techs never get an operational jump; Tremblay has had seven throughout his career. It makes him an authority on SAR in Canada.

“This is part of Search and Rescue. This is when planes crash,” said Allister Pedersen, Cranbrook’s Provincial Emergency Program Air (PEP Air) Training Officer for the local CASARA branch.

In a real search situation, Tremblay told me the team would have pushed it and gotten in the air, but for training weather can easily cancel a flight. Snow can also cover a crash sight, which complicates searches and creates an urgency to get in the air when weather is bad.

“A plane that you would have found right away can take a few days,” Tremblay said.

The Buffalo is an extraordinary aircraft that was developed in 1965 by De’havilland. It’s been in use since then – and the exact aircraft that graced the Canadian Rockies two weeks ago has been flying since 1967. What makes the Buffalo so incredible is its ability to take off in astonishingly short distances. The runway at Cranbrook is 8,000 feet long, but the Buffalo needs a fraction of that space – only 1,210 feet of runway to take off and clear a 50-foot obstruction. For comparison, the Dash 8 aircraft that land at Kootenay Rockies every day need four times the runway space as the Buffalo and Cranbrook is capable of landing up to a Boeing 747 if the need ever arises.

It’s that ability that has made it the go-to aircraft for Canadian Forces Search and Rescue teams and bush outfitters across Canada.

The SAR crew is all military, with two pilots, a flight engineer, two SAR Tech members and a navigator. On the Cranbrook stop, three SAR Techs came along for the ride for training.

Pedersen was instrumental in having his members get the chance to meet with Tremblay and members of the SAR Tech crew, and step aboard the aircraft on December 2.

“They need their flying hours, just like we need our flying hours,” Pedersen told the gathered local spotters. Participating in the training was Corinne Sveinbjornson, Doug Martin, Renny Norsworthy, Connor Wigen, James Richards and Grant Tulloch.

The job of a spotter is to work with SAR Tech and military search teams in the event of a search operation. Locally, the Cranbrook CASARA team uses a two-seater Cessna 182 with a local pilot to conduct training and in the event of an official search.

They are the first in the air when a disaster happens. Searches are conducted for plane crashes, man hunts – anything where an aerial view can be helpful in locating a subject. As the local teams get in the air, they relay information back to a Canadian Forces base such as Comox, who may send out crews if needed.

Once in the air, spotters perform call arounds as they notice things in the horizon. The procedure is simple, yet training is key in ensuring a successful search. Spotters sit at a window, and every movement is steeped with military precision.

First, the spotter calls out left or right. The pilot then banks the plane in that direction. Then the spotter provides a clock position for the pilot to look to, keeping in mind that as the aircraft banks that position is changing all the time, and describe what they see. The nose of the aircraft is always 12 o’clock. Then they provide an approximate distance and relay with the pilot until he sees whatever it is the spotter is pointing out.

If the spotter is onto something, the SAR Tech team will take over and co-ordinate from there. If the search objective is found, a number of things can happen from informing ground crews, to a team of highly trained Canadian Forces SAR Techs diving out the back hatch of the aircraft and parachuting down to help the victims.

The military uses civilian spotters to provide a rest for the SAR team on flights that can extend anywhere from three hours when in a Cormorant helicopter, to three to six hours in a Buffalo and 13 to 14 hours in a Hercules.

“It’s not a good thing to be falling asleep in the window,” Tremblay said.

Sometimes when a search continues, the spotters are snagged from their local airport and can be stuck on the aircraft for a day, then find themselves unceremoniously dropped at a random airport. Tremblay encouraged them to have a bag ready with everything they might need, because you just never know.

“For us, you never know how long a day is going to be,” he said. “If you guys are on board, you’re along for the flight. You never know what you’re going to get.”

Tremblay soothed the concerns of the spotters, who surely imagined themselves stranded at a rural airport. The Canadian Forces pays your way back to wherever you came from – it just might not be on the military aircraft you came off of.

The task can be daunting for a civilian spotter to step on an aircraft like the Buffalo – but sometimes things get even bigger, when a Hercules arrives. In the Cessna, the spotter sits right beside the pilot and they work together. In a larger aircraft, they can be 30-feet back from the pilot at the spotter window.

“The first couple of times you feel uncomfortable, like you might screw it up,” Tremblay said.

Pedersen said the SAR Techs do their best to train each spotter before they get on the aircraft, and provide help when needed.

“I have found them to be absolutely amazing people to work with and they make you feel really comfortable,” he said.

But for Tremblay, he said training on the spot when a big search is called will create a great spotter.

“It gets pretty busy when there’s a major search,” he said. “You become a pretty good spotter real quick.”

Tremblay then tackled a subject I’d been wrestling with all weekend leading into the CASARA training. It was the worry I had that morning when I opted for a small, not-so-rich breakfast instead of the eggs and avocado I had been craving – vomiting on the aircraft in front of a bunch of hardcore military men.

“There’s a good chance you’re going to be sick,” Tremblay said, citing the constant twists and turns of the Buffalo when spotting. “Don’t feel bad about it. If you’re sick on the Cessna, you’re definitely going to be sick on the Buffalo.”

My stomach turned, thinking back to the passenger flights I’ve been on chugging ginger ale and loading up on Gravol.

Tremblay didn’t seem worried. He’s seen it all, but he causally asked the spotters to refrain from throwing up on the spotter window, because it creates an unpleasant situation for everyone. Often it just stays there, clinging to the glass, until they get on the ground and can clean it up.

There’s still a job to do, vomit or no vomit.

 

See part two of this story in the Thursday, Dec. 20 edition of the  Townsman/Bulletin.