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Learning the ropes of search and rescue

My headset is disconnected so I can't hear what Warrant Officer Jean Tremblay is saying over the roar of the engines, but I know what he wants me to do. I undo my seatbelt and stand up, which isn't easy given the way the plane is moving.

My headset is disconnected so I can’t hear what Warrant Officer Jean Tremblay is saying over the roar of the engines, but I know what he wants me to do.

I undo my seatbelt and stand up, which isn’t easy given the way the plane is moving.

This is the most turbulent flight I’ve ever been on.

The big yellow CC-115 is called a Buffalo, but it’s unofficial name is Barfalo. And now I know why.

The plane is bobbing up and down like a cork in the ocean.

I stand up and stumble across the fuselage towards the window.

I tap the spotter on the shoulder to let him know that I’m there. He unplugs his headset and hands me the chord.

I plug it in and sit down on the stool, where he was moments before. I do up the seatbelt and stare out the window, letting my eyes adjust to the change in light.

I give the spotter, who is still watching the ground from over my shoulder, the thumbs up to let him know I’m ready to take over.

I push down the button attached to my headset so that the pilots can hear me.

“New eyes on the left,” I say.

Now I’m in control of the plane.

My job is to tell the pilots where to go.

It’s a level of responsibility that I’m not really comfortable with.

When I joined the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association last summer, I didn’t really think it through.

I was interviewing Gerry Whitley for an environmental story I was working on. Whitley is a water consultant, but he’s also a pilot and the zone commander for the Yukon chapter of the search and rescue group.

“You’re a little guy with good eyesight,” he said, as I was packing up. “How would you like to be a spotter?”

I had no idea what a spotter was, but it was good to know that being a short guy was finally coming in handy.

A spotter is the look-out for the air search and rescue crew, the ultimate backseat driver.

“You tell us where to go and we keep the plane off the mountains,” was the way pilot Capt. Mark Archambault explained it.

Archambault is a member of the 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron based in Comox, B.C. It’s responsible for an area stretching from Canada’s southern border to the Arctic, and from the Rocky Mountains to more than a thousand kilometres out into the Pacific Ocean.

Comox is a long way from the Yukon so when a plane goes down in the territory, it’s often the local CASARA volunteers who mount the initial search.

When the military arrives, it takes over but the CASARA volunteers continue to work with them.

The spotter’s job is to look out the window and scan the ground for any signs of a crash or people.

“How hard could that be?” I thought.

It turns out it’s pretty hard.

To train spotters, the association drags targets out into the bush around Whitehorse. The orange and blue tarps are laid out with a Emergency Locator Transmitter, or ELT, next to them.

The emergency beacon can be set off manually, but the impact of a crash will also trigger it. You’d think that a brightly-coloured tarp would be easy to spot, but it’s not.

On my second training flight, I never found the target although I knew we were right over it because we could hear the ELT beeping incessantly over the radio.

I’ve always liked flying, but every time I step into an aircraft it’s hard not to think about crashing. It’s even harder when the entire point of the flight is to train for an inevitable crash.

I’ve always had a healthy mistrust of machines. Evidently so do flight engineers.

The plane flew in from Comox the night before our exercise and the cold Yukon weather was causing problems.

While we wait in the back of the freezing cold fuselage for the mechanics to sort things out, Tremblay shows us some of the equipment on board.

The parachute is much heavier than I expected. “Is this the one filled with silverware?” I ask.

He doesn’t laugh at my joke. I guess he’s not a fan of Looney Tunes.

The job he does is serious business.

As a search and rescue technician, or SAR tech as they say in the military, his job is to jump out of planes or repel from helicopters and save people.

It’s an elite unit. They are trained to provide on-scene medical aid and extraction from some of the harshest and most remote areas of the country.

It’s a dangerous job. A few months ago, a SAR tech died trying to rescue two men stranded in a boat in choppy seas off the coast of Nunavut.

As Tremblay shows us the giant medical pack he jumps with, a flight engineer pushes past, carrying a set of wrenches.

When I sit down and hook my headset into the aircraft’s intercom, I find out that there’s something wrong with the oil pressure gadget.

“Just give it a tap,” I hear someone say over the wire.

After waiting for almost an hour, the engines roar to life and the cabin is filled with exhaust fumes wafting through the open door.

Even with the delay, I’m not really that worried about the plane. In more than four decades of service, no Canadian Buffalo has ever crashed, although one was shot down over Syria in 1974.

My big worry is airsickness, and the omnipresent smell of exhaust isn’t helping.

Before I joined CASARA, I had never been airsick before. Not even carsick. But when I joined I was warned that it was inevitable.

“There’s an old sailor expression,” said Whitley. “If you’ve never been seasick, you just haven’t spent enough time at sea.”

Half an hour into my first spotter training flight, I find myself fighting to keep my breakfast down.

This military training flight is only my third one as a spotter.

Despite the bumpy ride I’m feeling fine.

While I sit at the window scanning the ground, Tremblay leans over my shoulder and gives me a target, a small piece of fence sitting between two lakes.

“Turn left,” I say and the plane banks steeply in that direction.

“It’s at your nine o’clock,” I say, although it’s really further back, more like seven o’clock. It’s difficult for me to remember what an analogue clock looks like. I’ve worn a digital watch for years.

I try to describe where the target is and what it looks like as best I can. I’m stammering a bit and my description is vague at best, but it doesn’t take the pilot long to spot the target. He’s obviously been doing this longer than I have.

Back on the ground, there’s coffee and doughnuts waiting for us.

We’re each given a card confirming that we are now fully trained military spotters, but I still don’t feel qualified.

That would take a real emergency, and with any luck that will never happen.

Contact Josh Kerr at