Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Day With Rescue 309

I've mentioned here earlier that one of my secondary duties at 14 Wing is to serve if called as a spotter on Search and Rescue flights. A SAR spotter serves as the eyes of the search aircraft, and on a long search typically supplments the regular back end crew of SAR techs and loadmaster who also take their turn in search windows. You need to take turns because after about twenty minutes your eyes get tired and you are ready to take a rest before resuming your place in the search. The spotters are essential because the crew up on the flight deck are busy with their tasks and can't spare much time for looking around.



Canadian Forces Hercules aircraft.

In a C130 Hercules, there are two search windows, one each side of the fuselage, near the tail ramp of the aircraft. You sit in a chair, as seen here in this rather blurry photo, and you stick your head as close to the window as possible, scanning from directly below the aircraft to up to a mile out.



413 Squadon SARtech in the search window of a Hercules.

On Wednesday of this week I got a call from Wing Ops at about 10:30pm to be ready to go out at first light. A fishing vessel had sunk off Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and while three crew were recovered by a Coast Guard vessel, the captain was missing. Since the captain was said to be wearing a survival suit there was some hope for him, but it was snowing over the search area on Wednesday night, preventing the use of night vision equipment. I didn't sleep much that night. I kept thinking of how warm my bed was, and of how someone might still be alive in the frigid ocean, waiting for the light and trying to stay awake.

It was certainly frigid in the Herc at 06:30 when I reported. I was grateful for gloves, long underwear and toque as we loaded and prepped the plane. There were three spotters in addition to two SAR techs and the loadmaster in the back end and all would be taking turns watching. The SARtech sergeant briefed us on what to look for - the fisherman's suit was orange but so were the many lobster floats in the area. A floating man look would be X shaped, whereas floats are round, so don't call the alarm unless you see the X shape.

It warmed up quickly once the engines started, and soon we were over the area and starting to fly search legs from 1000 feet down to 600. A Cormorant helicopter, also from 413 Squadron, was examining the coastline in our area (called a coast crawl in SAR parlance) and at one point we saw the Coast Guard vessel Edward Cornwallis also at work. After my first time in the window, I was amazed at how quickly twenty minutes had gone by. I'm not always known for my ability to focus, but I don't think there was another thought in my head besides trying to sort out what I was seeing below, and the sight was impressive: the green rolling sea flecked with whitecaps, lobster floats aplenty, and the occasional seabird scudding over the waves far below. It was a total surprise when the next spotter tapped my arm to tell me it was time for my relief.

When I was in the spotter chair I was able to listen to the crew on my headset. I'm always amazed at the quiet and professional tone of aircrew as they go about their business, the technical jargon interspersed with jokes and ordinary conversation. They're focused but also relaxed and the sense of competence is very reassuring to a novice like myself. There was the usual banter about watching their language with a padre on board, but otherwise I felt part of the team.

By noon, off Tuskett Island south of Yarmouth, the snow was getting worse. It was difficult to see anything out of the window, and I was startled when one of the pilots said that he was becoming uncomfortable with the low visibility. When I heard that comment while we were banking at barely 600 feet above water I couldn't see through the snow, I don't mind saying I got a little nervous. We headed back to base at Greenwood, very calm and professional despite visibility at the airfield being a mile or less, while waiting for the SAR control centre in Halifax to decide if the search would continue. While we were at lunch we heard it had been called off. After 24 hours in the water in winter, even in a survival suit, there was no chance the fisherman would still be alive and the opinion was that he must have been caught on the boat when it sank, since we hadn't seen a body.

It was a disappointing outcome to my first search. At the same time, it was impressive to see the professionalism of the SAR crew at work. Every time there is an incident of this sort the media often second guess the search efforts and ask if there are enough resources in the right places. The answer is that no, there will probably never be enough resources, but Canadians should be proud of how many military and Coast Guard assets were at work looking for one person in difficult circumstances. May God receive the soul of the lost fisherman into his eternal care, and may be bless and protect all those SAR personnel who work, in the words of their motto, so that others may live.

1 comment:

jgoreham said...

Sad I missed this post the first time around, it's very interesting. With search and rescue efforts, people seem generally happy to sit back in their computer chairs in front of CBC.ca and complain 'why didn't they this or that'. It's helpful to know how S&R does what they do- I had never realized that snow conditions prevent the use of night vision equipment.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.

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