Taking a ride with Canada’s search and rescue team

Stephen Bates looks out from his perch 900 metres over Marsh Lake. The master corporal kneels on the open maw of the lumbering C-130 Hercules aircraft and fiddles with a water pump cradled between his legs.

Stephen Bates looks out from his perch 900 metres over Marsh Lake.

The master corporal kneels on the open maw of the lumbering C-130 Hercules aircraft and fiddles with a water pump cradled between his legs.

Below him are tiny dots of autumn-coloured trees and a huge expanse of water.

Bates stops to smile for the camera before helping Sgt. Derek Putnam push a yellow barrel from the back-end of the plane.

Within seconds a white parachute mushrooms open and softly carries the pump to two waiting boats in the lake.

Soon it will be Bates’

turn to jump into the icy water.

Bates is one of 200 people who travelled to Whitehorse this week to train and compete in rescue activities.

The National Search and Rescue Exercise, as it’s known, happens once a year and brings togethermilitary personnel from across the country.

Usually held in Comox, British Columbia, this is the first time the event has taken place in the Yukon.

During the week, officers brush up on a number of rescue skills including medical, search, parachute accuracy, marine and ground rescue.

The events are as much a competition as they are practice for the military personnel.

For Bates it’s an opportunity to show off what he loves doing.

Back in the plane he readies himself for his 900-metre descent.

He slips on water flippers, gloves and a dry suit hat under his helmet. Then he slides on a parachute pack.

While Bates and two others, Sgt. Michael Cox and Master Cpl. Dan Boddan suit up, Putnam tosses a batch of coloured streamers out the back of the plane.

The streamers will guide the parachutists by indicating wind direction and speed.

After double-checking their packs, Bates, Cox and Boddan waddle to the open lip of the plane.

“Thirty seconds,” one of them yells over the noisy roar of the four-engine plane.

In quick succession the men jump and three bright orange parachutes burst open.

Unlike other jumps where parachutists freefall before pulling their parachute (this often happen from 10,000 feet), this jump is carried out from a static line.

As soon as the men step off the plane, the static line – a cord between the plane and their pack – triggers the parachute to balloon open.

Now airborne, the three gently sail over Marsh Lake tugging on their parachute lines to guide them to a simulated boat crash below.

The plane makes a sharp turn to avoid hitting the parachutists and speeds back to the Whitehorse airport.

It’s one of the last few flights the plane will make.

Next week it will be decommissioned after 14 years of transporting military troops, medical supplies, fuel and search and rescue equipment.

It will be stripped of whatever salvageable parts and the remaining frame will be junked.

Meanwhile, 56 parachutists jumped from the plane Wednesday evening – the air force’s largest organized mass jump.

Over the next two years Canada’s fleet of aging Hercules aircraft will be replaced with 17 “super” Hercules aircraft, an upgrade that will cost the government $1.4 billion US dollars.

The new planes will be used in humanitarian situations like last year’s Haitian earthquake relief and for military efforts.

In addition to the “Herc,” people may have also noticed a yellow turboprop plane darting over head this week.

The DHC-5 Buffalo carries parachutists and supplies and is used because of its extremely short takeoff and landing capabilities.

The plane can take off from a strip that’s shorter than a soccer field.

While carrying a load of personnel about to carry out a rescue exercise Wednesday afternoon, the Buffalo was called out to a real search and rescue emergency.

An emergency beacon in Prince Rupert had been pulled.

But mid-flight to Prince Rupert the Buffalo was called back – a plane stationed in Comox was able to get there more quickly.

The distress signal could have been a variety of things, including a false alarm, said Master Warrant Officer Dale Robillard.

Sometimes if a plane makes a hard landing the emergency transmitter inside the aircraft will send out a distress signal.

“It goes off more often than we want it to,” Robillard said.

He once searched through all of downtown St. John’s, Newfoundland, looking for a transmitter that had been activated on a life raft in storage.

“We couldn’t figure out where it was coming from,” he said. “The signal kept ricocheting off all the nearby buildings.”

Air searches for people are less frequent, such as the one last summer looking for a California couple whose plane went down on the way to Whitehorse.

That search was eventually called off 20 days later when crews didn’t come across any signs of the couple.

“We pledge to search until it’s no longer reasonable to do so,” said Robillard.

“We can’t ever guarantee we’ll find people.”

Canada’s search and rescue team is often called on by provincial and territorial governments to assist in large search efforts.

They handle about 8,500 calls per year.

“We keep busy,” said Robillard.

The 160-person team is spread throughout Canada in five different bases: Gander, Newfoundland; Greenwood, Nova Scotia; Winnipeg, Manitoba; Trenton, Ontario, and Comox, BC.

Becoming a search and rescue person isn’t easy though.

Applicants must first go through four years of military training or have previous paramedic experience.

They also need to have experience in mountaineering, scuba diving, parachuting and Arctic survival before they even go through search and rescue training.

It’s a lot to know. But the payoff is big.

“I used to dread going into work,” said one member minutes after finishing a perfectly landed parachuting exercise.

“Now I never have a bad day there. I love what I do.”

Contact Vivian Belik at


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