Thursday, February 24, 2011

“It was like an apartment building on its side”

By Holly Bridges

The crew of SAR Lapis Arrow from L to R: aircraft commander, Capt Jeff Powell, flt engr MCpl Murray Slack, SAR techs Sgt Dan Leger and MCpl Kelly Matthews, flt engr Cpl Dave Galant and first officer Capt Steve Siket. Photo by Capt Mike O'Brien.

Members of 103 Search and Rescue Squadron, 9 Wing Gander, N.L. battled 100-kilometre an hour winds at sea in late January to perform what some crew members say was the most challenging boat hoist of their careers.
The mission pushed man and machine to the limit, all in an effort to pluck an ailing seaman off the deck of a Liberian container ship 170 nautical miles (approximately 315 kilometres) southwest of St. John’s, N.L. Under the international Beaufort scale of wind speed ranging from 0 as calm to 12 as a hurricane, this was a seven. Even the Hibernia oil platform, where crews normally refuel before returning home, was closed because of high winds.
“We train every day for this kind of mission so we can pull it off in sea state seven,” says flight engineer (flt engr) Master Corporal Murray Slack, a former Army infantryman and aircraft maintainer who performed the hoist as part of his training aboard the CH-149 Cormorant.
“It was intense,” says MCpl Slack. “We were working hard. It was the worst boat mission I have ever done for weather. All my other hoists were pretty tame.”
What made the hoist so challenging is the fact the 176 x 31 metre Lapis Arrow was a moving target.
Flt engr Cpl Dave Galant, who supervised MCpl Slack on the mission, says many people think hoisting patients and search and rescue technicians (SAR techs) on and off large ships is easy because the decks are so large. Not so, says Cpl Galant.
“In this case, the winds were so strong that the hoist sequence became extremely challenging because of the way the ship was moving,” says Cpl Galant. “It was like an apartment building on its side. It was rocking side to side and bobbing up and down. One minute we were over it and then a wave would come up and move her 40 or 50 feet away from us in a heartbeat.
“We train to watch the waves and time the hoist perfectly to place the SAR techs on the deck without injuring them. If a wave comes up and you’re lowering at the same time, they might get injured. It was definitely the most challenging hoist I have ever seen.”
Sergeant Dan Leger, the first SAR tech to be lowered down, says it was a tiring ordeal. “I pretty much flew my way down just putting my arm out to stop myself from spinning around. Getting back up was difficult because the hook that the [flight engineer] was trying to lower to us was just sailing in the wind. Sometimes it was flying at a 45 degree angle. The cable kept getting caught in the light stanchions on the deck.” Luckily, a Lapis Arrow crew member climbed up the stanchion to untangle it.
The hoisting sequence required everyone to be on top of their game. The pilots, flt engr(s) and SAR techs worked as a team, talking on headsets, to keep the helicopter in a steady hover over the ship. Harnessed to the floor of the helicopter and kneeling out the side door, MCpl Slack maintained visual contact with the boat and talked pilots through which way to con the helicopter.
“The flight engineer is basically the eyes of the pilot,” says Cpl Galant. “They know if we’re talking very calmly and steadily everything’s going OK. Everything’s in the intonation of your voice and we’re trained for that. If you’re calm, the pilots are calm. If you start sounding hurried, the pilots know something’s going on.”
First officer Captain Steve Siket says every pilot is “only as good as his flight engineer” especially in the case of east coast missions such as this one with 50-knot winds. He says the mission put the crew on a fine line between becoming a “zero or a hero”.
“None of us on that crew, and there were some pretty seasoned guys on that helicopter, had ever seen anything like that. I flew 26 missions last year and I don’t remember any of them but this one I will definitely remember the entire sequence over that boat.
“There was a lot of potential for a lot of things to go very wrong very quickly.”
Despite the challenges, the seaman was airlifted to St. John’s where he was transported to hospital. All in all, it was “another day at the office” for the crew of “SAR Lapis Arrow” – with one notable exception – the “office” is one of the harshest and most unforgiving workplaces in Canada.
“SAR Lapis Arrow exemplifies the best of the CF contribution to Canada's national SAR system,” says Major Steve Reid, commanding officer of 103 (S&R) Sqn. “The professionalism and team work displayed in the face of these tremendously difficult conditions would not have been possible were it not for the invaluable contributions of our squadron technicians and support personnel who enabled a timely and effective response.”

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