A Sikorsky RH-4 made the first documented rescue by helicopter on Nov. 29, 1945, so it’s not surprising that Sikorsky sponsors the HAI Humanitarian Award. This year’s award goes to the Gander, Newfoundland-based flight crew of a Royal Canadian Air Force search-and-rescue helicopter for a successful rescue accomplished under extreme weather conditions on Feb. 9, 2013.
The basic objective–find and recover three seabird hunters on a 16-foot aluminum boat floating in Indian Bay east of Gander–was itself relatively straightforward, but darkness and a fierce winter storm called “Nemo” made the mission particularly dicey, if not impossible. (The hunters were after a bird known as a “turr” in Newfoundland and Labrador and a “murre” in the rest of North America.)
In fact, several times during the most hazardous part of the mission, as visibility and winds caused the crew to quickly re-evaluate their options and next step, they gave serious consideration to abandoning the rescue, according to Captain Jonathon Groten, who was first officer (copilot) on the flight. “But just as we were about to abort the mission, the visibility would clear a little and become acceptable enough for us to continue,” he told AIN. “We made sure we maintained options all the time.”
Full Winter Blizzard
Rescue 912, an AgustaWestland AW101/CH-149 of the RCAF’s 103 Squadron, had departed Gander Airport IFR at 10:22 p.m., after waiting for ground crews to clear a path through drifting snow from the squadron’s hangar to the runway. Surface visibility was a half-mile, the ceiling at 200 feet and icing conditions prevailed in the clouds.
The emergency call had been received exactly one hour before the takeoff. The hunters had tried to return to land, but their route became blocked by ice. Nemo had become a full winter blizzard with winds gusting to 40 knots. The hunters had endured 20 hours of exposure, and their chances of survival were diminishing quickly.
Although the distance to the hunters’ reported position was only some 40 nm away, according to the coordinates received from Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax, the actual and forecast weather necessitated an alternate for Gander. The only one available was Deer Lake Airport, which was more than 140 nm due west of the hunters’ location. The distance from Deer Lake to Gander is about 110 nm. Captain Aaron Noble, aircraft commander, and Groten decided to add fuel to the CH-149 to give them enough endurance for 45 minutes on scene for the rescue and a potential diversion to Deer Lake while remaining within the weight limit for a hovering pickup. Typical endurance of the CH-149 is four hours, Groten said, and it can be extended to five hours by removing some survival gear. Typical cruise speed is 130 knots.
Due to headwinds, it took the three-engine helicopter (a derivative of the original EH101) 30 minutes to make the 40 nm flight to the hunters’ last reported position. Arriving on scene, the crew found the narrow inlet of Indian Bay in blizzard conditions, so the pilots decided to fly several miles farther east to make an automated, overwater descent to a 100-foot hover.
In the hover, visibility varied from a quarter- to a half-mile in intermittent heavy snow squalls. The crew wore night-vision goggles. Although snow degrades the effectiveness of the goggles, “This mission would have been absolutely impossible without them,” Groten said.
The hunters were now about eight miles downwind of Rescue 912. With some 40 knots on its tail, the helicopter hovered forward at about five knots, while Groten checked the map, GPS and radar for the position of the inlet’s coastline and several small islands. The other crewmembers searched for the hunters’ boat and watched for obstacles from the side windows.
Controlling the helicopter in a downwind hover with severe turbulence off the surrounding 300-foot hills was so difficult that Noble considered calling off the rescue. “The autopilot held a good hover, but it was having trouble holding position,” Groten explained. “Aaron tried to reduce our forward speed with aft cyclic, but could not slow down” the helicopter’s forward groundspeed.
About two miles from the hunters’ position, Nobel decided to turn the helicopter 180 degrees to put the nose into the wind. This resulted in better control of the hover, but now Sergeant Bradley Hiscock, flight engineer (standing in the rescue door), Master Warrant Officer Jeffrey Warden, SAR tech (looking out the left side window) and Master Corporal Mark Vokey, SAR tech, (looking out the back over the lowered rear ramp) were the only ones who could watch for obstacles and search for the hunters. Constant crew coordination was essential to the safety and success of the maneuver. Warden was the first to spot the hunters’ lights and the two red flares they had lit.
But the additional maneuvering made fuel again a concern. Based on earlier calculations, the helicopter needed to depart now, if it were to make it to the Dear Lake weather alternate. A quick recalculation showed there was still some time to pick up the hunters, and if the crew exceeded that time, they figured they could land on the shoreline (which they could see) and shut down. “Our backup plan was to break out the survival gear and wait,” Groten said. At least, they would have the survivors on board.
With minimal references over the ice and open water, Noble fought to maintain a stable hover, while Hiscock and Vokey endured the full force of the storm and a wind chill of -22 degrees. Vokey also received static electric shocks from the aircraft as Hiscock lowered him to the small boat. Once there, the rescueman triaged the three hunters and readied them for up-hoist. Warden assessed the men as they came aboard the helicopter.
Deer Lake or Gander?
When all were back in the cabin and secured, the pilots took off eastward into the wind, making a maximum-rate climb on instruments to clear the surrounding hills while using radar and the GPS map to monitor the terrain. After making a 180-degree turn, they flew west over the village of Centreville on the Southwest Arm of Indian Bay. “We could see the town’s lights below us,” said Groten.
At a safe altitude of 4,000 feet and with just enough fuel to reach Deer Lake, the pilots had to decide between Gander and Deer Lake. Fortunately, Gander Centre reported a slight improvement in weather at Gander airport. With three hypothermic survivors needing medical attention as soon as possible, the pilots decided to fly to Gander.
They flew the ILS to Runway 13, breaking out just above minimums, and landed. The three hunters were quickly transferred to an awaiting ambulance and taken to medical care. Total flight time was about 3.5 hours, according to Groten.
In addition to being awarded the HAI Humanitarian Award, the flight crew of Rescue 912 also received the AgustaWestland Cormorant Trophy and the Prince Philip Helicopter Rescue Award from the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators (GAPAN). Said Jeremy Tracy, AgustaWestland’s head of region–Canada, “This is another outstanding rescue effort by dedicated Royal Canadian Air Force members who had the confidence to push themselves and their aircraft to the extreme to ensure that lives were saved.”