442 Squadron honoured with Cormorant Trophy at SAREX 14

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Article / October 6, 2014

By Alycia Coulter and Lucy Ellis

On an average workday, Canadian search and rescue (SAR) crews remain ready to be called across the country to save the lives of those in need. On an extraordinary day, they must accomplish their task while battling the elements in a race against time.

Whether it’s a fishing boat in danger of being crushed by an iceberg, a 12-year old in the woods with spinal injuries, a sailor lost in the waves, or an injured hiker on a precarious ledge, SAR crews are ready to react. Crews who accomplish such demanding feats are recognized annually. 

The Cormorant Trophy for Helicopter Rescue was presented at the National Search and Rescue Exercise (SAREX) banquet to recognize the Canadian civilian, government or military crew that performed the most demanding helicopter rescue of the year. The Cormorant Trophy has been presented since 2003 in cooperation with Agusta-Westland/European Helicopter Industries.

Our dedicated crews strive for excellence every day and are involved in the coordination of roughly 10,000 aeronautical and maritime SAR incidents in Canada each year,” said Major-General (MGen) Christopher Coates, Deputy Commander Continental Operations of the Canadian Joint Operations Command (CJOC). “It is important to recognize their courage and professionalism in the face of severe environmental conditions and extreme challenges.

Each year, units submit nominations to 1 Canadian Air Division (CAD) for consideration. A board of SAR personnel review and select the winning nomination.

The criteria for missions include that it occurred within Canada’s SAR area of responsibility, was conducted by a Canadian civilian, government or military helicopter crew, and involved a rescue or attempted rescue where lives were saved or the potential for saving lives was high. Additionally, the severity of environmental conditions, difficulty of the mission and courage, dedication and professionalism of the crew is also factored into the decision.

The award is presented at SAREX to recognize the outstanding performance of the various SAR units in front of the entire Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) SAR team.

This year, the award was presented to the crew from 442 Squadron (Sqn) who took part in Rescue 903. Sergeant (Sgt) Christian Morrissette, the SAR Technician (SAR Tech) Team Leader during the rescue, accepted the award on behalf of the rescue team. The crew of Rescue 903 also included Major (Maj) Troy Maa as the Aircraft Commander, Captain (Capt) Francois Fasquelle as First Officer, Master Corporal (MCpl) Kent Campbell as the Flight Engineer and Sgt Guy St-Denis as the SAR Tech Team Member.

On 1 August 2013, a group of hikers was climbing in the Mount Waddington mountain range in British Columbia. During their scale of Fascination Mountain, a male hiker fell down a steep slope. A civilian helicopter attempted to recover the hiker, but the high altitude and treacherous location created an unsafe environment for it to complete the rescue.

The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) in Victoria, BC reached out to 442 Sqn at 19 Wing Comox to task a CH-149 Cormorant helicopter for the rescue. As night time was approaching, a CC-115 Buffalo fixed wing aircraft was also tasked to provide illumination of the rescue scene with parachute flares.  

When Rescue 903 arrived on scene, the hiking group had taken shelter on a small ledge at 9,300 feet – with such a high altitude, there was little margin for error. “We got on scene and discovered we couldn’t hover because we were too heavy, it was too high, and the winds were such that we could not hover safely out of ground effect. So we had to fly down into a valley bed and drop off non-essential gear. Then we went back into the hoisting position,” said Capt Fasquelle.

The Cormorant maintained a steady hover 150 feet above the rescue site – any lower and the helicopter’s main rotors would have collided with the steep mountain side. Two SAR Techs were lowered, but their hoists were complicated by a lack of steady footing and the steepness of the slope.

We were lucky that evening,” said Capt Fasquelle. “Sgt Christian Morrissette is actually an expert in mountain rescuing. All SAR Techs have exposure to mountain rescue, but he is specifically versed in it.

As the SAR Techs were preparing for the recovery, the fuel level of the rescue was approaching 550kg – only 150 kg above the required amount to complete the mission with safe reserve fuel.

The SAR Techs were extremely efficient. They knew that we were very short on fuel which means very short on time. The actual rescue itself took about 15 minutes from the time we started inserting the SAR Techs to the time we started extracting them off the cliff. The time on the scene for them to conduct the actual medevac rescue on the ground was no more than five minutes,” said Capt Fasquelle.

This rescue was the highest altitude hoist ever conducted by a Cormorant helicopter.

The lesson that comes out of this rescue is that teamwork is essential. Without any of those people on board and the Buffalo aircraft providing overhead support, the rescue would not have been a success, or at least it would have been much more difficult. Everyone was extremely well trained and prepared for that kind of mission without knowing it was going to come up,” said Capt Fasquelle.

Although this particular mission was selected to be honoured by the Cormorant Trophy, each and every nomination demonstrates the complexity, risk and teamwork that is required to execute a SAR mission in Canada.

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