Powered by three engines, the rugged, long-range CH-149 Cormorant can fly for over 1,000 kilometers without refueling. Plentiful cargo space and rear ramp access allow the helicopter to carry substantial loads, including up to 12 stretchers at one time.
Theres a saying in the military: train hard to fight easy. In a search-and-rescue squadron, that means practicing every conceivable emergency response over and over again until each crewmember lives, breathes and responds according to procedure. The theory behind this practice is that someday, in a stressful real-life situation, that training will automatically take over and see the mission through to a safe conclusion.
When Practice Becomes Reality
That theory of good training becoming reality is exactly what happened on the night of Dec. 23, 2010, when a Royal Canadian Air Force CH-149 Cormorant (Canadian military version of the AgustaWestland AW101/EH101) and its crew of five flew into the teeth of a howling winter gale to rescue a hiker who was stranded on a mountain side in Cypress Provincial Park, just north of Vancouver, B.C.
The hiker was experienced and well-equipped for his trek, but a winter storm had slowed him down on his way home and he lost his track. As the sun set, he called 911 from his cell phone, activated his emergency beacon and dug a snow hole for shelter and warmth.
Ground search and rescue (GSAR) from North Vancouver received the initial distress call and mounted a rescue attempt. Ultimately, they were able to establish voice contact across a valley, but were unable to reach the hiker due to poor weather and imminent risk of an avalanche.
GSAR then requested help from 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron at 19 Wing/Canadian Forces Base Comox, B.C., and within 30 minutes one of the squadrons powerful three-engine, medium-lift Cormorants was launched. On board that night were Capt. Jean Leroux, aircraft commander; Maj. Troy Maa, first officer; Sgt. Carl Schouten, flight engineer; Sgt. George Olynyk, SAR tech team leader; and Master Cpl. Nick Nissen, SAR tech team member.
We had just come back from a night exercise when we got the call from RCC [Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre Victoria] that there was a hiker stranded on Hat Mountain, remembered Leroux, who is also chief check pilot on the Cormorant. It was night and the weather was going down rapidly. We launched, and when we got to the scene the winds were at 60 to 70 knots at altitude.
The hiker was stranded on the leeward side of the mountain, said Leroux. That meant the Cormorant would have to battle severe downflow in order to reach him. Also, visibility was poor and the cloud ceiling was low.
We were told the hiker had a headlamp, said Leroux. On our night vision goggles we could see the white spot of his lamp through the clouds. We had to come up with a plan to get to him, so we shot the approach down to mid-mountain at the edge of the clouds, and started creeping up, from tree to tree, if you will, on the hill. All we could see was the rock face.
Inch by tortuous inch, the Cormorant ascended toward the hiker. Three times the crew had to overshoot, but on the fourth attempt they got high enough to see him.
At that point, the SAR team had to act quickly and decisively. It would be disastrous if an avalanche occurred while the helicopter was hovering beside the rock face, and the powerful rotors were kicking up a lot of wind, which could disturb the snows stability.
At that point, it was just quick and dirty, remembered Leroux. It didnt have to be pretty; it was grab and go in only a couple of minutes. We could see him in the snow hole. Later, we found out that he had no idea we were coming; he thought he was going to be rescued by ground SAR. So, he was completely disoriented when he saw this huge light coming towards him, with a lot of accompanying wind and noise, and a SAR tech dropping from the sky. Until he was in the chopper, he really had no idea what was going on.
Getting the hiker into the rescue helicopter, though, was only part of the battle. From here, the crew really had their work cut out for them. We were in cloud facing the rock face, said the aircraft commander. We had to do an instrument departure, and inch away from the rock.
With the rest of the crew flight engineer Schouten, and SAR techs Olynyk and Nissen spotting the tail and both sides of the helicopter, pilots Leroux and Maa slowly distanced the craft from the mountain, turned and flew the dazed hiker to a rendezvous with a land ambulance.
Leroux is quick to share the credit for this successful rescue in extremely challenging conditions. What was good on that specific rescue was that everybody was chipping in. The entire crew coordination was just amazing. Without everyone spotting the tail and calling directions as we moved up the hill, it wouldnt have been possible. We try to train so that when we come to a complicated mission like this, it comes naturally. But that night we had a strong crew and we had the Cormorant, which was the right machine. Everything lined up and that hiker got an easy way out.
The daring Hat Mountain rescue attracted industry attention, earning the Comox SAR crew the 2011 edition of the Cormorant Trophy for Helicopter Rescue, an award established by CH-149 manufacturer AgustaWestland. Each year, the winner is selected by a panel that includes Canadian Forces members and aviation journalists. Canadas Chief of the Defence Staff, Gen. Walter Natynczyk, travelled to 442 Squadron to present the crew with the award on Nov. 26, 2011.
Four months later, Leroux and Olynyk found themselves in Dublin, Ireland, to accept another award on behalf of their crew. Judges had declared them the clear choice for the SAR Award for Operational Rescue Excellence, which was presented at the 2012 Shephards Search and Rescue conference this past March. (The event is globally recognized as an important gathering for SAR professionals, and was organized this year with the support of the Irish Coast Guard.)
The trip was awesome, said Leroux. The conference includes all the big suppliers, and just being amongst them was good for us. We were pretty much the only pilot users, and it was just priceless to see how the hoist comes together, for instance. We were [also] able to share our experiences with the Cormorant.
As Canada is the highest-time operator of the Cormorant, there were likely a lot of experiences for the 442 Squadron crewmembers to share while in Ireland. In fact, in 2012 the Canadian Forces fleet of CH-149s passed a milestone of 50,000 operating hours. In all there are 14 Cormorants in Canada, with five at 442 Squadron, including one of the highest time AW101s in the world.
The Comox Cormorants are fully supported and maintained by civilian contractor IMP Aerospace & Defence, Canadas largest military maintenance, repair and overhaul facility. The Halifax, N.S., based company keeps a permanent staff of technicians and supporting personnel on site at 442 Squadron, while other personnel in Halifax provide depot-level engineering and maintenance support to the national CH-149 fleet. Both the Comox and East Coast operations are among the most efficient AW101/EH101 maintenance organizations worldwide. And, with Canadian Department of National Defence endorsement, IMP has also developed a special depot-level maintenance program to identify and repair the long-term effects of operating the Cormorant in a salt-water environment, such as that found on Canadas coastlines.
Birds and Buffalos
While the CH-149 takes its name from a medium-sized coastal seabird, 442 Squadrons other operational aircraft is named after a land-based creature: the majestic buffalo (a.k.a. the American bison) that once roamed the grasslands of North America. Produced by de Havilland Canada in the 1960s and early 70s, the DHC-5 Buffalo is one of Canadas most legendary aircraft, a short-takeoff-and-landing transport that was designed originally for the needs of the U.S. Army.
Canada acquired its fleet of Buffalos in the mid-1960s and designated them as CC-115s. The rugged aircraft quickly earned a reputation for its low-and-slow flying characteristics and its ability to access hard-to-reach locations, requiring as little as 2,500 feet for takeoff.
Today, 442 Squadron is home to the Royal Canadian Air Forces last operational fleet of six CC-115s. Working in tandem with the Cormorants, the Buffalos flew a total of 1,800 hours last year, including both missions and training operations. And while fleet hours are down, mission diversity is still high.
I dont know that there is a typical Buffalo mission, said Capt. Scott Cursley, a CC-115 navigator at 442 Squadron. We have provided top cover for the Cormorant; we have gone out looking for downed aircraft in the Rockies; we do medevac missions, as well, although not as many because there are more civilian operators now.
The Cormorants predecessor, the Boeing Vertol CH-113 Labrador (Canadian military version of the CH-46/BV 107-II), was greatly complemented by the Buffalos capabilities. But since the quicker, more powerful CH-149 was introduced, fewer fixed-wing missions are flown at the squadron.
Were averaging 200 missions a year for the last five years, said Cursley. Thats every type of mission. Last year, it was about a 65/35 split, 65 percent Cormorant, 35 percent Buffalo. The Cormorant numbers are going up and the Buffalo numbers are coming down.
In addition to the Cormorant being more capable than the Labrador and taking on a greater range of missions, aircraft serviceability issues further reduce the Buffalo fleets flying hours. Still, 442 aims to have two aircraft ready to go with 30 minutes notice: a SAR plane and a backup.
Terrain and Technology
When asked what makes 442 Squadron different from other SAR detachments in Canada, most pilots will immediately tell you: the mountains.
Being on the coastal range and having to deal with 10,000-foot peaks around you limits your ability to go from point A to B, said Cormorant aircraft commander Capt. Leroux, who also flew the CH-149 for 413 Transport and Rescue Squadron at 14 Wing/CFB Greenwood, N.S. It makes things a little more complicated, transit-wise. Also, once youre doing the rescue, now you have to deal with performance at high altitudes. You have to know the aircraft and its capabilities inside-out.
And although they still have to be intimately familiar with their aircrafts capabilities, SAR crews in Comox (and indeed, across the country) are increasingly relying on technology to make their jobs easier and safer.
Said Leroux: Technology has changed our job. The job of a navigator used to involve a lot of map reading, but now we have GPS. We can go from A to B in a more precise and effective way without being occupied by the navigational aspect of transit. And, as for those who crash, they are most likely somewhere along their GPS track. Cell phone towers help to triangulate the location, too, so the search aspect is reduced quite a bit. Thats good, because the search part is the costly part.
The advent of night vision goggles (NVGs) has also had a huge impact on SAR operations. NVGs have opened the ambient light available at night, said Lt.-Col. Jonathan Bouchard, commanding officer of 442 Squadron. Now we see those valleys. We see where the high and low ground is located. The goggles amplify the night and make night missions a lot more effective and safer.
Leroux agrees. To fly without NVGs at night now, it would have to be an emergency.
Bouchard also named GPS and satellite communications as technology that has opened up new dimensions for SAR crews. Sat com allows us to talk to anyone, anywhere. Before, we relied on high frequency radios and that was very hit and miss. Now, SAR techs can talk directly to doctors on the ground and we get updates as needed.
Looking ahead, Bouchard said, Were looking into newer pieces of equipment, such as electro-optic and infrared sensors, to increase our SAR capability and maximize the aircrafts value in the air. What the piece of kit will be in the end is still unknown, but were for sure looking at this for our SAR aircraft.
The government is also looking ahead at possible replacements for the CC-115 Buffalo, as the aircraft is scheduled to retire in 2015. However, a replacement fixed-wing SAR platform has not yet been selected (see p.50, Canadian Skies, Nov-Dec 2011).
Buffalo navigator Capt. Cursley said that when it comes to choosing a replacement, the focus will be on anticipating future SAR requirements. With the Cormorant being such a capable aircraft, do you need the short field capability [of the Buffalo] anymore? Somebody with a bigger brain than me will answer that question. But, with a rescue heli coming behind, what capabilities exactly are needed?
When asked what characteristics hed like to see in a replacement for the CC-115, 442 commanding officer Bouchard said, We need to make sure that the Buffalos replacement will really complement the Cormorant. The fixed-wing platform may not need to fill the same gaps as it did when the Labrador was here. These days, the Cormorant doesnt get there too far behind the Buffalo.
Bouchard further said that an aircraft with the right balance of speed, altitude and range would be preferable: Pressurized aircraft can clear the mountains; with peaks at 12,000 feet or so, we could clear them. Also, the new Arctic focus from the government talks about what we should have in terms of range, because of the number of flights over the North Pole. We need to be sure that what we procure can reach those regions in good time in case of an emergency. Its not only the Arctic, but also 600 miles offshore, as per our international obligations on the West Coast. What that replacement aircraft is, I dont know, but those are all considerations.
Whatever aircraft is ultimately selected to replace the venerable CC-115 Buffalo, it will be paired with the CH-149 Cormorant to create Canadas next-generation SAR platform (and would of course replace the Lockheed C-130 Hercules that, in the interim, is partnering with the Cormorant on the SAR mission at other squadrons). And, hopefully, the new aircraft will be phased in more smoothly than the Cormorant, which received a lot of negative publicity early in its service life due to tail-rotor-hub cracking issues.
Said Bouchard: In the early days of the Cormorant, we had problems with the tail rotor, but those were replaced by an articulated tail rotor. This eliminated the problem, and also reduced the number of maintenance hours. However, we do still have some challenges with the Cormorant in terms of maintenance; changes have been made to the maintenance program in terms of parts procurement and that has helped. (Ensuring parts availability is also a big reason why the Canadian government purchased the Lockheed Martin VH-71s from the U.S.; see p.12, Vertical 911, Heli-Expo 2012.)
Capt. Leroux thinks the CH-149 is a great machine that got off to a bad start: The Cormorants tail problems quickly got solved, and now its a great machine. Its the best machine by far that Ive ever flown. Its big and heavy, but its so powerful at the same time. Its solid in high winds.
In fact, the three-engine Cormorant is so powerful it was designed to operate on only two engines during cruise. Said Bouchard: There is a project to do what some other countries are doing, to increase the endurance of the Cormorant by shutting down [the] No. 3 engine during cruise. . . . But there are limitations. You cant shut down an engine during icing conditions. If it freezes, you cant start it back up, and you need all three engines to do the actual rescue. If we ever get this procedure approved, it will definitely come out with limitations.
Of course, as valuable as any aircraft is to a mission role, the aircrew is always the other half of the equation and maybe more than half when it comes to the SAR role. The often-unsung heroes on the aircrew, at least from the point of view of an aviation magazine, are the SAR technicians.
Its a long road to become a SAR tech, said Sgt. Eric Dinn, a SAR tech team leader with 442 Squadron. Enrolment is limited and theyre looking for tenaciousness . . . . They look for the people that stick it out. The rigorous SAR tech training curriculum includes medical training, an Arctic operations phase, ground operations, rescue diving, parachuting instruction and mountain training. Said Dinn, We have all the jobs. We dont have the numbers to segregate people onto only one airframe and one job. The thing in Canada is that the country is so big. There are approximately 160 SAR techs to cover all of Canada, I believe. Comox has 29 on its roster.
On-the-job training plays a big part in a SAR techs career advancement. We work in teams of two a team lead and a team member, explained Dinn. Youre not considered a fully qualified SAR tech until youre a team lead. Being a SAR tech is an evolutionary process.
Its also a challenging process. Dinn came to Comox from CFB Greenwood, where one day he would be preparing to jump out of a Hercules in the High Arctic, and the next assisting with a marine rescue on the Cormorant. In Comox, he operates on both the Buffalo and the Cormorant. The skill sets are very difficult to keep up. Youre expected to operate at such a high level; your life is constantly on the line. When youre parachuting or building a rescue system, you better know what you are doing, because [other] lives are [also] on the line.
Since SAR techs could conceivably be with a patient for hours or even days while waiting for extraction, the aircraft are loaded with mountain kit, medical kit and other supplies. Often, SAR techs dont know what will be needed until they are on scene. Over water, we can drop SRKs [sea rescue kits] with a six-man life raft, radios, clothing, all you need to survive, or we can drop pumps to pump out a boat, said Dinn.
SAR techs also use NVGs while in the aircraft. The goggles amplify light so much that they have found people who were just flicking a lighter, or who had turned their cell phones to the sky. But, there are also times when the Mark 1 Eyeball the naked eye works, too.
Either way, victims have a part in being found. People are small, explained Dinn. Youre going at 120 knots at 500 feet. Look at a seagull on the water and thats basically the size of a human from shoulder to shoulder. Thats why its so important to at least have a strobe when youre out there on the water. It can be the difference between life and death.
With the dangers they face, being a SAR tech is about managing and mitigating risk. And this is where that concept of good and repeated training making real-life missions easier comes in to play. As Master Cpl. Patrick Guitard, a SAR tech team member with 442 Squadron, recalled when thinking back to the first time he went out on a real mission, he said he was surprised at just how similar it was to training. They say to always train the way you fight. That means the training works.
Its a revelation that many have had before him, and its a universal military truth that saves lives. It may not be unique to 442 Squadron, but its certainly the backbone of the operation all the same.
Editors Note: The original version of this article appears in RCAF Today 2012, a special annual edition of MHM Publishings Canadian Skies.
Lisa Gordon is editor-in-chief of MHM Publishings Canadian Skies magazine.