Members of 103 Search and Rescue Squadron rescue man off the coast of St. John’s

Article / December 7, 2016 / Project number: cjoc

By: Kaitlin Buttrum, Canadian Joint Operations Command Public Affairs

Fighting through a cloud of thick fog, a helicopter hovers into position above a vessel, struggling to maintain visibility. A flight engineer controls the hoist cable as a search and rescue (SAR) technician descends from the helicopter to the vessel below, determined to bring a man needing medical attention to safety.

On November 5, 2016, a crew from 103 Search and Rescue Squadron successfully delivered this patient to the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s, Newfoundland, after a 7-hour medical evacuation.

Early that day, the Joint Rescue Coordination Center in Halifax received a call indicating that a crew member on board a commercial ship off the coast of St. John’s needed medical attention. At approximately 11am, 103 Squadron in Gander, Newfoundland, was tasked to extract the man and transport him to the nearest medical facility. 413 Search and Rescue Squadron in Greenwood helped as well, sending a CC-130 Hercules ahead in order to prepare the vessel and crew for the marine extraction prior to 103 Squadron’s arrival.

Meanwhile, a crew of five personnel from 103 Squadron was standing by to execute the rescue using a CH-149 Cormorant. This crew included two pilots, an aircraft commander and a first officer, two SAR technicians and a flight engineer. The flight engineer, Sergeant Dan Corkery, recounted the details of the mission while also discussing the challenges and rewards of the job at large.

According to Sergeant Corkery, the weather conditions provided the biggest challenge to the success of this rescue. About 100 miles offshore, the crew onboard the Cormorant encountered a large cloud of thick fog that made it very difficult to see. Nearing the vessel, they had to use their flight instruments and the aircraft’s autopilot to descend through the fog until they were able to get close enough to the ship to maintain visibility.

As the flight engineer, Sergeant Corkery’s job was to ensure the mechanical well-being of the aircraft before and during the flight. In addition, he operated the hoist cable while the helicopter hovered over the vessel. To do so, he first connected the SAR technician to the hoist cable, completed a safety check, and asked the pilot for clearance to hoist. Then he controlled the cable as the SAR technician descended.

At the same time, he was responsible for providing “conning” commands to the pilot to guide him on where to go, because during a mission like this a pilot has very limited visibility.

“Imagine that you are driving a car with a blanket over half of the windscreen and being told directions from someone sitting in the back seat that can see out,” explains Sergeant Corkery. “The pilot can neither see the SAR tech being hoisted or the area to which he/she is being hoisted to and, to add a little flavor to the situation, the vessel is heaving and rolling as well.”

Consequently, it was Sergeant Corkery’s task to be the pilot’s eyes, guiding and instructing him as the SAR technician descended to retrieve the patient.

In spite of the challenges, the crew was able to bring the man back to safety.

Overall, a day in the life of a SAR flight engineer can best be described in one word: unpredictable. In the Newfoundland Search and Rescue Region, the amount of distress cases is almost twice the national average. With the number of rescue missions ranging from one every other day to as many as three in one day, members of the 103 Search and Rescue Squadron can rarely predict when they will be called in to save lives.

According to Sergeant Corkery, the most difficult part of hoisting during a rescue mission is the environment.  

“Every hoisting evolution is never the same,” he says. “Weather conditions, sea state, and the size of the vessel are a few of the variables that make every hoist operation unique. It should never be assumed to be easy.”

Flight engineers must train constantly to prepare for missions like these. The conning procedure that occurs between the pilot, flight engineer and SAR Tech is the core skill that is conducted during daily SAR training. However, the demanding aspects of training enable flight engineers to maintain a constant state of readiness, allowing the successful execution of missions to become second nature.

And the most rewarding part of a mission? For Sergeant Corkery, reuniting rescued persons with their worried loved ones and the feeling of satisfaction from completing a successful mission are what make his job most worthwhile.

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