THE TRIBUTE

Number 17

Summer 2017

 

Air Crew Association of Southern Alberta

The Southern Alberta Branch of the Air Crew Association has landed for the final time. The group made up mostly of aircrew members from WW 2 and a small number of Cold War aircrew veterans held its final Thursday luncheon on May 18th. The branch was the largest in the Commonwealth and the last to fold from a membership of 19,000 spread all over the globe. The group has met every Thursday, unless the day fell on Christmas or New Years, since 1988. In 2004 there where 189 members which was reduced to 135 in 2010. At the last dinner there were only 35 members remaining of which only a few were able to attend the Thursday lunches. So ends the story of a wonderful group of brave airmen who served Canada well.

Per Ardua Ad Astra.

 

Rescue at the Top of the World

Part 1

By Gary Watson

No permanent human settlement sits farther north on this planet than Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert. At 82 degrees 30 minutes north and 62 degrees 19 minutes west, it is located 817 kilometres (508 miles) from the geographic North Pole on the northeastern tip of Ellesmere Island and spends six months of the year in twilight and darkness.

Cpl Brett Guitard (left), LS Garnet Robinson, Cpl Yvette Cedeno and Avr Alain Fortier serve as sentries at the memorial cairn during its dedication marking the 25th anniversary of the crash of Operation Boxtop Flight 22. Sgt Paz Quillé photo

Constant winds blow snow across its desolate landscape. The only means of supply to this remote location is by aircraft. Weekly flights bring in fresh food, newspapers and mail. Twice a year, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) undertakes Operation Boxtop, a major airlift of non-perishable supplies supplementing the weekly trips.

Using the CC-130 Hercules, personnel from Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Namao, Alta. staging from Thule Air Force Base in Greenland, 710 kilometres (441 miles) to the southeast, flew round-the-clock missions carrying either fuel or freight.

One lift involved dry cargo–vehicles and construction materials–and the other two involved jet and diesel fuel. Three CC-130s could deliver 2.3-million litres (607,595 U.S. gallons) of fuel over a two-week period during the wet lift. The October 1991 Boxtop operation was the first time the Canadian Forces had used an internal bulk fuel tank.

Boxtop Flight 22–Day One: Oct. 30, 1991

Boxtop 22 was the 22nd flight of the second airlift of 1991. It was a CC-130 crewed by Aircraft Commander Capt John Couch, First Officer Lt Joe Bales, Lt Mike Moore, a navigator; Sgt Paul West, a flight engineer; and MCpl Roland Pitre, the loadmaster for the flight.

The aircraft was carrying 3,400 litres of diesel fuel, 13 passengers and a crew of five, and was scheduled to land at Alert on Oct. 30 at 4:30 p.m. EST (all times Eastern Standard Time). Visibility was 17 kilometres (10 miles) in light snow. The sky was overcast and CFS Alert was in total darkness. The aircraft commander cancelled instrument flight rules (IFR) 50 kilometres (31 miles) out when the airport lights were visible. He started a shallow descent for a wide visual approach to the runway.

When nearly abeam the airport, 20 kilometres (12 miles) to the east, the flight crew slowed the aircraft and commenced pre-landing checks. While flying in a level attitude and in a slight left bank, the aircraft crashed into rising terrain, invisible in the darkness. The aircraft broke into three pieces: the tail section, main fuselage and cockpit. The bulk fuel tank shattered, soaking passengers, crew, and the surrounding snow- and rock-covered terrain. An intense fire started, further damaging the remaining fuselage sections and injuring some of the survivors.

CFS Alert radio operators heard no distress call from the aircraft. Waiting for the Hercules to arrive was Maj Donald Hanson, the airlift commander appointed by CFB Namao base commander Col Mike Wansink, who was the overall commander of Operation Boxtop. At 4:35 p.m., five minutes after the plane’s estimated time of arrival (ETA), Hanson contacted the radar operator to enquire into the arrival status of Boxtop 22 and was told the aircraft had disappeared from the radar into “ground clutter.” He immediately initiated an all-frequencies communications check. There was no response from Boxtop 22 and Hanson then directed the following aircraft, Boxtop 21, to overfly the area. Boxtop 21 reported a large ground fire to the east of the airport.

Hanson immediately activated a forward disaster command post and in doing so launched one of Canada’s largest, longest and most frustrating rescues.

The crashed Boxtop 22 Hercules aircraft rests on the Arctic tundra to this day.                                                                        Jill St. Marseille photo

Within minutes, Air Transport Group headquarters was notified that Boxtop 22 had likely crashed and the status of survivors was not known. At the same time, the Edmonton Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) was advised by Transport Canada’s Edmonton Area Control Centre that the aircraft was overdue.

A massive rescue operation commenced with participants from across Canada, Alaska and Greenland.

The RCC contacted Alert and was told that Boxtop 22 had crashed. The RCC immediately alerted the standby search and rescue (SAR) Hercules at 435 Squadron at CFB Namao, which went from a 30-minute standby to immediate readiness.

Col Wansink was notified and then activated the Major Air Disaster (MAJAID) plan. The Canadian SAR system has a number of contingency plans and MAJAID is designed to cover a crash or emergency landing of a large aircraft in the north. Resources from all SAR locations across Canada are alerted to respond with their 12- to 20-person standard rescue kits. Additionally, four large parachute-deployable MAJAID kits, capable of supporting 360 survivors, could be dispatched from the location at CFB Namao to the crash site.

By 7:20 p.m., a 435 Squadron SAR CC-130, Rescue 342, with two flight crews and 14 SAR Techs, was airborne from CFB Namao and estimated to arrive at Alert by 2:20 a.m. on Oct. 31.

The standby SAR CC-130 from 413 Squadron at CFB Greenwood, N.S., was launched a minute later with an ETA of 2:30 a.m.

Rescue 301, a CH-113 Labrador helicopter from 103 Rescue Unit (now 103 Squadron), also left Gander, N.L., with two crews with an estimated flight time of 24 hours. Another Labrador, Rescue 315 from 424 Squadron, launched from CFB Trenton, Ont.

A CC-115 Buffalo from 442 Squadron departed from Thompson, Man. and a CH-135 Twin Huey helicopter from 444 Squadron also departed from CFB Goose Bay, N.L. By 8 p.m., another Labrador was underway from CFB Greenwood.

Deteriorating weather in Eastern Canada forced the Labrador from Gander to turn back and the Twin Huey was cancelled because of the long distance and time required for it to fly to Alert.

Crews at 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron at CFB Namao began taking apart a Twin Huey for transport to Alert by Hercules.

By 11:30 p.m., the ground party in all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and the circling aircraft had seen three green flares from the crash site–telling them there were survivors.

At 11:52 p.m., the MAJAID CC-130 was launched from CFB Namao and preparations were made to accommodate the injured in Thule, Greenland and Iqaluit. These were the closest communities to the crash scene with suitable medical facilities. With certain rescue at hand, the harsh climate of the high Arctic began to gain the upper hand as the weather worsened.

Day Two: Oct. 31, 1991

Arriving over the crash scene at 2:39 a.m., Rescue 342 was unable to parachute the SAR Techs because high winds and blowing snow obscured the crash site. They were equipped with 1950s vintage T-10 parachutes, unsuitable for use in winds exceeding 20 to 30 kilometres per hour. As well, the ground party had been forced to return to Alert due to mechanical difficulties, the lack of any useful navigation equipment and vehicles capable of traversing the steep slopes of the Sheridan River valley which lay between them and the crash site.

Adding to the problem, staff rotated through CFS Alert every six months and few present had any personal knowledge of the local terrain. Conditions at this point were pitch black, with 50 kilometre to 80 kilometre-an-hour winds, temperatures of – 20C to -30C and zero visibility from blowing snow: a true Arctic whiteout.

No permanent human settlement sits farther north on this planet than Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert.                    MCpl Shilo Adamson Photo

By 3 a.m., Rescue 315 was leaving Val d’Or, Que., and another Buffalo had been launched from CFB Trenton to fly navigation support for the visual flight rules (VFR)-only Labrador helicopter.

At 5:25 a.m., Rescue 342 picked up a weak radio transmission from the crash site and determined there were at least 14 survivors and some were badly injured. The effects of the severe cold were becoming a critical issue and the rescuers were becoming increasingly frustrated by the weather and their inability to reach the crash scene. A continuous barrage of airborne flares from the circling Hercules aircraft provided sufficient light for the SAR Techs to jump if the storm abated.

A second ground party attempt with SAR Techs from Namao and staff from Alert, using light provided from the airborne flares, attempted to reach the crash site using poor quality terrain maps and an altimeter built into a wristwatch. A Greenland Air Bell 212 attempted to make the trip from Thule but two hours later was forced to return due to the severe weather.

Meanwhile, the Edmonton RCC had located two United States Army HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska and had obtained permission to use them in the rescue attempt. A Lockheed C-5 Galaxy aircraft was located to transport the two helicopters to Thule and a U.S. Air Force HC-130 was re-routed to provide air-to-air refuelling for the helicopters once they were assembled in Thule.

At 1:15 p.m., radio contact was lost with the survivors and the ground rescue teams were forced to return once again to Alert. However, on their third attempt, the ground team crossed the Sheridan River and slowly made its way towards the crash site and the survivors.

In the next few hours, the drama continued to unfold: the 408 Squadron Twin Huey left CFB Namao in a CC-130; the Buffalo escorting the rescue Labradors went unserviceable in Kuujjuaq, Que., and was replaced by a CC-130. One of the Labradors then went unserviceable and shortly after the long-range navigation system failed in the second Labrador.

This helicopter, Rescue 315, continued on using dead reckoning until a CP-140 Aurora from the RCAF’s then Maritime Air Group arrived to escort it for the remaining 20 hours of flight time. By 11:50 p.m. it had reached Clyde River on the coast of Baffin Island and was en route to Pond Inlet.

At 11:55 p.m., SAR Techs from the Rescue 305 circling Hercules (piloted by Maj Marv Macaulay of CFB Greenwood) seized a moment of opportunity and despite the winds still being above their safe landing speed, parachuted from far lower than the reported 1,000 feet, into the gale below.

Landing without major injury, they quickly started first aid and relayed the conditions to the command centre. A second drop of SAR Techs quickly followed from Rescue 342 the Edmonton CC-130. The SAR Techs jumped from extremely low altitudes with some minor injuries and quickly assisted the first team in stabilizing the survivors. With the exception of one toboggan, all air-dropped supplies were blown away after landing and non-recoverable. Reportedly, SAR Techs hit the ground almost immediately after leaving the aircraft as their parachutes were deployed via static lines, indicating how low they actually jumped. All jumpers recall this and some were confused at hitting the ground too early and believed their canopies opened violently and, that they had impacted other jumpers in the air. In reality they were being dragged along the snow with their own inflated canopies.