Quebec’s Security Blanket
By Carroll McCormick
The Sùreté du Québec (SQ) Bell 412EP lifts and hovers a couple of feet above the apron.
By Carroll McCormick
The Sùreté du Québec (SQ) Bell 412EP lifts and hovers a couple of feet above the apron. In the cabin there’s a chargé de mission (mission coordinator), a German shepherd and its handler, out for their annual refresher training. A moment later, the pilot receives takeoff clearance from the Saint-Hubert Airport control tower and the machine clatters off to the north across Runway 06/24R.
|A Bell 412EP is always ready for SAR missions. (Photo courtesy of Sùreté du Québec)
The Helicopter Services dates back to 1960. Its specialists include explosive experts, rescuers, divers and tactical response units. It added canine teams in 2009 and has some 10 dogs stationed around the province. Missions have included searching for lost woodsmen, evacuating flood victims, conducting aerial surveillance and apprehending suspects. The three Helicopter Services aircraft – a Bell 412 and two Bell 206s – collectively log about 750 hours of flight time a year, 85 per cent of which is dedicated to search-and-rescue missions that take place in a radius of 300 nautical miles, or 556 kilometres, from its Saint-Hubert Airport base.
The Helicopter Services first aircraft was a Hughes 269, purchased in 1960. “It was available, but not used regularly. It was well before my era,” laughs Yves Girard, coordinator for the airborne program with the SQ.
Photographs from the 1970s show the Government of Quebec crest on Helicopter Services machines. In the late 1970s, the SQ crest reappears. In the 1970s three Bell 206B3 helicopters were available for the SQ: one was stationed in Montreal, another was stationed in Quebec City and the third was shared between Rouyn-Noranda and the Eastern Townships. Later, the two 206s were co-located with the SQ’s emergency service on the south shore of Montreal alongside the A-30 in Saint-Hubert.
|This Hughes 269 was taken in 1960, the organization’s first year of operation. (Photo courtesy of Sùreté du Québec)
The SQ helicopters belong to the Service aérien gouvernemental (SAG), which also manages the forest fire service, medical evacuation and the transport of government personnel. The current Helicopter Services fleet consists of a Bell 206B, SAG bought in 1979, a Bell 206LT SAG bought in 1992 and a Bell 412EP it bought in 2001. After SAG acquired the 412EP, the Helicopter Services moved to a more spacious home at the Saint-Hubert airport – a building that includes offices and an 80-foot by 80-foot hangar.
Few people will ever have the opportunity to join the Helicopter Services. On the mechanical side are four technicians who take care of most of the maintenance, repairs and hour- and calendar-based inspections. Some tasks, like structural, sheet metal and avionics, are outsourced.
There are eight pilots. They are not members of the SQ; rather, they are hired by SAG. The entrance requirements for pilots are very high and, Girard says, “Many of the pilots are retired members of the Canadian forces.” Prospective pilots must hold an airline type pilot licence to operate the 412EP, have an IFR rating, have at least 2,500 hours of flying time, including 2,000 turbine hours and 1,000 hours as a crew member of an 412EP or similar type of helicopter.
|Members of the Sùreté du Québec team practise from the top of a wind turbine. (Photo courtesy of Sùreté du Québec)
Sùreté du Québec documents state that there are four chargés de mission, who are also SQ police officers. They do the same work onboard as does a flight engineer from the Royal Canadian Air Force, minus the mechanical work. The main task of a chargé de mission are to assist the pilot in manoeuvering the helicopter in confined areas, to conduct hoist operations, to operate the thermal imaging camera and to carry out any other tasks dictated by the mission. Finally, there are about 20 trained observers, one of which must be aboard every Bell 206 flight.
Girard is a chargé de mission, as well as being the coordinator of the airborne program. He is responsible for the training of the other chargés de mission and he coordinates all missions that involve the use of a helicopter. He is also the main link between the SQ and SAG.
The National Search and Rescue Secretariat, recognizing Girard’s work in developing the canine team, awarded him the Award of Excellence for Innovation in 2010. In the words of the Secretariat, the Award “recognized those who have solved a problem or successfully leveraged an opportunity that has served to enhance
search-and-rescue.” In the words of the SQ, “Gerard was awarded this prize for the development of a procedure involving the transporting and deployment of the canine team using the helicopter hoist.”
|A 412EP crew practises a rescue, the bread and butter of the Sùreté du Québec. (Photo courtesy of Sùreté du Québec)
Each Bell 412EP crew normally consists of two pilots, a chargé de mission and two rescuers. The primary role of the 412EP is to carry out moderate to high-risk search and rescue missions. As a versatile utility helicopter, it can be configured nine different ways. Depending on the type of mission, other specific services may be added. “We can change most of the configurations within 15 minutes. The configurations for heavy loads for a diver or explosives technician are more complicated and require more time to be installed,” Girard explains. The 412EP can be used to carry troops, with a practical limit of six officers plus the helicopter crew. It can also be outfitted with a video camera and a thermal imaging camera.
The 206B and the 206LT are certified for day- and night-time flying in non-icing conditions. Most of the time, however, they are used for daytime operations that may, for example, have them carrying crime scene technicians who may also shoot videos and take photographs for investigations.
“The 206B is used for low-risk search-and-rescue. It is also used to assist criminal investigators. Since it has only one engine, however, it only crosses small watercourses. The 206LT, with its two engines, is used over water or rivers for searches, but near Montreal because of its [additional weight and] limited [fuel] autonomy,” Girard notes.
Every 206 flight includes a pilot and a trained observer. The requirement that the observers be trained came following a tragedy that took place near Quebec City on Oct. 25, 1993. During a mission near the Chute-Montmorency (Montmorency Falls) an SQ 206 Jetranger 3 flew into a cable and crashed. All four people onboard died.
As is the case today, observers were required on flights back then, but there were no training standards. “The coroner recommended that a qualified observer always be onboard. An observer does the looking, and the pilot does the flying,” Girard says.
Spring and fall are the busy seasons for rescue training. It is mid-May when Helicopters visits and Girard is scheduled for recurrent training of his own. “I’ll do cliff training tomorrow night and one of my partners will listen to me, to make sure that I follow procedure, use the right terminology and do everything right. We must do this training a minimum of twice a year, but we do it more often than that. I am very passionate about this work.”
Passionate about the work, dedicated to serving and highly versatile – it’s an ideal way to describe exactly what team members of the Sùreté du Québec are all about. They are passionate about keeping the citizens of Quebec safe and secure on a daily basis.