Operating at the top of the world

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Article / June 29, 2015 / Project number: cjoc-fs-2015.06.29

By: Lucy Ellis

Operating in Canada’s austere North is about more than technical proficiency. It isn’t enough to know how to fly a helicopter or repair a solar panel – Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members have to know how to perform those tasks in a harsh and ever-changing environment, far from outside assistance.

Every summer, CAF members deploy to Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert and Fort Eureka on the northern tip and western coast of Ellesmere Island to perform essential maintenance on the High Arctic Data Communications System (HADCS). This operation is known as Operation NEVUS.

Ellesmere Island is Canada’s northernmost land mass, which places CFS Alert so far north that it cannot link with satellites that orbit between the Tropics. The HADCS does what regular satellites cannot: it sends information 500 kilometres down the island to Fort Eureka through a chain of six microwave repeaters. From there, Eureka is at the necessary latitude to communicate with satellites in the relay back to Ottawa.

“We check the repeaters to make sure that their power is ok and that they’re transmitting on the proper frequencies,” said Master Corporal (MCpl) Marty Stride, a HADCS technician from CFS Leitrim. “They charge by solar panels all summer long, and then once the sun goes down they run off the batteries all winter, because there are 24 hours of darkness for five months of the year up here.”

The technicians travel to the sites by helicopter with a line crew that tests the cables and ensures that everything is bolted down tightly. Between the incredible wind speeds and changing temperatures, a minor problem could soon become a large one if it is not dealt with. 

“We fly them up to the top of the mountain and depending on fuel, we either have to shut down up there and wait for them to finish their work, or come back [to Alert] ourselves, fuel up and then go back,” said Captain (Capt) Scott Stewart, a CH 146 Griffon pilot from 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron.

Each time the team leaves CFS Alert, they have to carefully watch the weather. “It could be clear blue skies and then ten or fifteen minutes later it could be zero visibility,” said Capt Stewart.

Part of flying safely in the arctic is using the right equipment. The pilots rely on GPS to keep them on track and ensure that their location can be traced by the home base. The unforgiving environment requires constantly watching the weather, their navigation equipment, and most crucial, the fuel.

The Griffon helicopter is equipped with an external tank which gives it around three and a half hours of flying time, depending on the wind. The flight crew takes into account the distance to the HADCS site and ensures that there is reserve fuel in case they have a difficult approach back to CFS Alert. In some cases, they need to make a stop along the way. 

“Eureka is 500 kilometres away so you have to stop halfway and get fuel. There’s no airbase halfway, it’s just a cache, which is basically a bunch of fuel drums,” said Capt Stewart. “So you land and pump the fuel into your helicopter, and continue. Once you reach your halfway point you’re committed. You can’t turn around and go back.”

Operating in the north isn’t easy; there is no cell phone service and compasses can’t be trusted to give accurate readings because of the proximity to the magnetic North Pole. That said, Op NEVUS provides CAF members with a unique opportunity to experience a part of Canada that most Canadians will never see.

Summer nights in the High Arctic are indistinguishable from summer days due to the 24 hours of sunlight, all the better to see the magnificent sights.

“I spend a lot of time in the arctic and I absolutely love it. It’s beautiful,” said MCpl Stride, who has previously deployed to Op NEVUS. Many members of the HADCS team also complete four month rotations at CFS Alert and conduct maintenance in the fall and spring. “Very few people will ever see those mountains, and the wildlife here is just incredible. Between the arctic wolves, the muskox, the arctic hare, and the foxes, it’s just an amazing place.”

For Capt David Rosser, the officer in charge of a team of geo-technicians who are conducting surveys of the HADCS sites, deploying to CFS Alert is a totally different environment than his native England.

“I’m British Army on exchange with the Canadian Army, so this is my first time being up this far north,” said Capt Rosser.

Capt Rosser noted that the biggest difference to operating in Nunavut as compared to other locations is the weather, but that his experience of CFS Alert has been positive. “It’s a great place and very friendly,” said Capt Rosser. “It’s a very slick operation. They’ve really nailed down how to run it, and they run a tight ship.”

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