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The Difference Maker

April 28, 2014  By Paul Dixon

Canada is an enormous country and it offers up so many different ways to punish those who tempt fate or run afoul of Mother Nature.

Canada is an enormous country and it offers up so many different ways to punish those who tempt fate or run afoul of Mother Nature.

A Royal Canadian Air Force CH-149  
A Royal Canadian Air Force CH-149 Cormorant helicopter hovers over the deck of HMCS EDMONTON.
(Photo by Private Dan Moore, 19 Wing Comox)


Helicopters have been (and continue to be) a key element of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) resources, starting with the rugged, twin-rotor H-21 “Flying Banana” – the first dedicated search-and-rescue (SAR) machine which was used from 1954 until it was replaced by the CH-113 Labrador in the early 1960s.

The venerable “Lab” lasted on the job for almost 40 years until the last one was replaced by the Cormorant from 2002 through 2004. The political wrangling of the 1980s and 1990s saw the Lab forced to soldier on, as the original scheme to replace the Sea King and the Labrador with derivatives of the AW101 known as the Petrel and Chimo were shelved. New engines and extensive refits kept the Labs on the job, but by the mid-’90s, even the most parsimonious and partisan federal politicians could see that there was no positive side to keeping the Lab any longer than necessary.


The 101 was reborn as the AgustaWestland 149 Cormorant, with a total of 15 ordered in 1998 with the first aircraft entering service in 2002. Today, the RCAF operates these CH-149 Cormorants from three bases at 443 Squadron in Greenwood in Nova Scotia; 103 Squadron in Gander, Newfoundland; and 442 Squadron in Comox, British Columbia.

The Cormorant was a big change from the Labrador in many ways, both as an aircraft and as a SAR platform. Major Jenn Weissenburn and Captain Stu Irvine are both experienced SAR pilots based at 442 Squadron in Comox. Weissenburn had almost 3,000 hours on the Labrador, Irvine at just under 2,000 hours and both are approaching 3,000 hours on the Cormorant. In the back of the aircraft, Sergeant Serge Poirier is the team’s Flight Engineer and has 4,500 hours on the Labrador and 1,500 on the Cormorant.

Coast Guard H-60 Jayhawk  
A United States Coast Guard H-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Station Sitka, Alaska takes off from Canadian Coast Guard Station Seal Cove, behind a CH-149 Cormorant helicopter on April 30, 2013. (Photo by Captain Trevor Reid, 19 Wing Public Affairs)


All will attest that the new aircraft was a huge improvement in many ways, but there were also some very profound differences between the old and the new. Irvine describes the difference as an analogy, “where the Lab was like your dad’s old pickup truck that didn’t have a heater and you could look down through the floor and see the road go by, but it took you most places. The Cormorant, on the other hand, is more like a modern SUV with all the creature comforts. It will take you to the same places and you’ll be a lot more comfortable getting there, but you’re leery about scratching the paint.”

The Cormorant is a much bigger aircraft, with a full load 10,000 pounds heavier than the Labrador. Three 1,725-horsepower engines give it a top speed of 167 knots and a range of 750 nautical miles while the Lab, with its two 1,800-horsepower engines, had a top speed of 144 knots and a range of 550 nautical miles. The net effect extends the off-shore range of the Cormorant to 250 miles over the Lab’s 180, allowing time to get to the scene, take care of business and return to land.

The biggest challenge is the effect that the one large single-rotor of the Cormorant has on everyone involved, the pilots, flight engineers, SAR techs and especially anyone or anything below the aircraft when it comes overhead. Capt. Irvine explains it from the pilots’ perspective. “It’s a single disc and with the special paddles on the ends of the blade it creates its own little hurricane,” he says. “You never know which way things are going to blow. I didn’t understand what the SAR techs were talking about until I saw video of how much the Stokes basket was blowing around. It would be swinging around wildly, 30 feet in any direction and that was just from the rotor wash.”

Sgt. Poirier had his introduction on his first operational mission after his upgrade to the Cormorant. “It was a night mission, on NVGs almost to Prince George, B.C.,” he recalls. “We had to pick up a patient who had suffered a heart attack near a lake. Not having much experience with the downdraft, I just lowered the SAR tech, but he was caught by the downdraft and it induced a big swing. The swing was so big you could see the SAR tech from the left side of the aircraft, and he was swinging from one side to the other. I was able to get control of him and lower him, but I learned a really good lesson. You hoist in and hoist out at maximum speed.”

MWO Tremblay, as one of the SAR techs, is very cognizant of the downdraft. “The concentration of the rotor wash is straight down and not spread around,” he says. “It’s right where we’re hoisting and it can be really difficult to work. It’s to the point where we always have to be aware of trees around us, because once you are on the ground the rotor wash can knock down smaller trees or even break branches off
larger trees.”

Following up on Poirier’s comment about the need to winch as quickly as possible, Tremblay says the winch on the Cormorant is a big improvement over the Labrador, with its 290-foot cable versus its 230-foot counterpart. The much higher speed is also a bonus.

Capt. Stu Irvine, Sgt. Serge Poirier, and Maj. Jenn Weissenburn  
Capt. Stu Irvine, Sgt. Serge Poirier, and Maj. Jenn Weissenburn in front of Cormorant 906. (Photo by Paul Dixon)


When it comes to flying the aircraft – getting to an incident and taking care of business – there are significant differences between then and now. For Irvine, the Cormorant’s performance sets it apart as a top-notch rescue platform. “When you fly in any kind of weather, this machine is absolutely beautiful at getting you there and getting you back again,” he says. “It’s comfortable, it’s got the anti-icing kit, the engine conditioning kit, autopilots and it can get you a lot more places. Now, when you get to those places, I find this aircraft a little more difficult to manipulate, particularly flying in any wind. The Lab didn’t care about the wind, a tandem rotor doesn’t give two hoots about the wind, whereas the Cormorant, if you have a strong wind off the left-hand side, you’re going to know it.”

Weissenburn concurs, adding, “you have to try to fly into the wind a lot more (with the Cormorant), whereas the Lab didn’t care, you could take the wind from any direction. And that becomes most critical in the mountains because sometimes you don’t have a choice for how you are going to position yourself, with the hoist on the right hand side. With the Lab, the hoist was on the same side, but it didn’t matter because the Lab didn’t care.”

The Cormorant shines as a rescue tool for the RCAF because it can perform very well in a wide range of situations – something it’s older counterpart could not. “Every situation is always different, but now it’s a matter of, ‘how are we going to do this,’ ” notes Weissenburn. “Before there was only one way, but now because of the position of the hoist, the size of the vessel, and the sea state all have to be considered. The Lab didn’t have any kind of altitude hold, so that’s definitely helped us with operations over the water at night. Before, without a hover mode automation or altitude hold, if you weren’t moving forward you didn’t know that you weren’t moving backwards. So, you always had to be creeping forwards to get an airspeed on the Lab, whereas now we can just stop, over water, at night and hover at 100 feet – in complete darkness. That was something we couldn’t do in the Lab. With the Lab we needed a visual reference, whether that was the Buffalo dropping flares or we dropped our own smokes. We needed something, where now we can just sight something on NVG, take a GPS position on that, turn around, come to the wind and come to a hover over the general area.”

Irvine notes that part of the Cormorant’s appeal is the flexibility of having three engines. “With the Lab, if you were coming into a ship, you would insert the SAR tech and then go into a circuit,” says Irving. “If you lost an engine, you would have to leave the SAR tech. With the Cormorant, we come to the back of the boat, insert the SAR techs and stay there now. If we lose an engine, under most circumstances we can hover with two engines, so if we plan it appropriately and lose an engine we have time to think it through. And that’s whether we’re taking the SAR techs back up or dropping everybody off. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when it’s the middle of the night out over the ocean and you’ve already had a lot of work to get there, it is a big deal.”

Going Above and Beyond

The Prince Philip Helicopter Rescue Award is presented annually by the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators (GAPAN) headquartered in the United Kingdom, to “an individual member of a helicopter crew, a complete crew or the crews of multiple helicopters, for an act of outstanding courage or devotion to duty in the course of land or sea search and rescue operations.”

Search and Rescue Techs  
Search and Rescue Techs from 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron based in Comox, B.C., participate in mountain training as part of a joint SAREX. (Photo by Sgt. Blair Mehan)


In 2007, the crew of rescue 901 from 442 Squadron in Comox made history as the first Canadian winners of the award for a rescue in October 2006. The group captured the honour for conducting a rescue from the side of a cliff in a box canyon with the CH-149 Cormorant. Captain Sean Morris described the experience as “pretty much the worst situation I’ve been in my entire life.”

The 2010 award was presented to the crew of Rescue 902, again from 442 Squadron. In April 2009, they were tasked to rescue a 37-year-old male who had fallen down a crevasse while skiing. The party of three had been on a multi-day excursion, which took them across the Mount Compton Glacier in B.C. and, while on the traverse, one of the party had fallen into a crevasse. Initial reports indicated he may be 30 metres down into the crevasse. The scene was at an altitude of 8,500 feet on a steep, icy slope. Stripped of all non-essential gear, the helicopter was forced to operate at the very limits of its capability. After an intense deliberation it was decided to hoist the two companion skiers into the helicopter and attempt to insert a SAR tech by hoist into the narrow crevasse. The Cormorant held its position and the SAR tech was lowered down into the glacier and was able extract the fallen skier.

The crew of Rescue 912 of 103 Squadron, Greenwood, were awarded the 2013 Prince Philip Helicopter Rescue Award for a rescue of three hunters from a Newfoundland ice flow in blizzard conditions. “When the rescue was launched, Capt. Noble was faced with flying the Cormorant helicopter through ‘a full-on winter blizzard’ with 40 centimetres of snow accumulating and wind gusts up to 75 kph,” the citation noted. “They immediately hit icing conditions. While flying in extremely low visibility through rugged terrain, navigating many islands and a narrow inlet, the AW101 Cormorant was pounded from the rear by 80 kph winds and severe turbulence off 100-metre hills. Conditions were so severe that Capt. Noble twice considered calling off the rescue.

“With two miles to go to the rescue location, Capt. Noble performed an impromptu ‘out of the box’ manoeuver turning the helicopter 180 degrees and flying backwards to gain stability. The other crew members scrambled to different positions and duties – Capt. Groten on the map, Sgt. Hiscock in the rescue door, MWO Warden in the left spotter window and MCpl. Vokey at the tail – all spotting and guiding Capt. Noble to the hunters’ last known position. Once Warden spotted the hunters’ lights and flares, Vokey was hoisted down to start the rescue, fighting through the storm, fierce rotor wash and static electric shock. The three hunters were hoisted aboard suffering hypothermia and were taken to hospital in Gander for treatment.”

Making a Difference Closer to Home

Of course, not all missions attract international attention and sometimes they take place within sight of the bright lights of the big city. In December 2012, a crew from 442 Squadron was involved in a rescue less than 25 kilometres from the bright lights of downtown Vancouver. The incident was featured in a CBC documentary on SAR that was broadcast in January 2014.

Canada's SAR leaders  
Canada's SAR leaders from Rescue 902, 442 Squadron, are well versed at making rescues at sea. (Photo courtesy of the RCAF)


Members of the civilian North Shore Rescue team had spent two days combing the west side of West Vancouver’s Cypress Bowl, the site of the 2010 Olympics snowboarding and freestyle skiing events, for a snowboarder who had gone out of bounds. At the end of the second day, the subject was located at the bottom of a 150-metre cliff. As nightfall crept closer, the team realized that it would take all night and all their resources to take him down the almost vertical mountainside, in the face of worsening weather and extreme risk of avalanche. MWO Tremblay and his crew had been alerted shortly after initial contact with the boarder and had been expecting the call and were quickly on their way.

In the CBC documentary, Jeff Yarnold and Mike Danks of North Shore Rescue, laugh when they describe the impression the Cormorant makes as it arrives. Yarnold describes it as “like the starship Enterprise” in the way it lights up the darkness, while Danks adds, “that long before you see the lights of the helicopter you can feel the ground shaking.”

For Tremblay and his SAR tech partner, the challenge was getting to the ground and not knowing if they would be able to get back up. The steep mountainside, tall trees and low ceiling put the helicopter in a situation where the entire 290-feet of the cable was required. Going down was no problem, but when Tremblay
evacuated with the patient in the first hoist out, he very quickly became aware of an unforeseen shortcoming of a 290-ft. hoist. The hoist started smoothly, but as he approached the helicopter, he suddenly began to swing about wildly under the helicopter. While he did get the patient and himself safely on board, there were a few tense moments. The problem was that the guideline which is attached to the cable and allows someone on the ground to maintain tension on the line all the way back to the helicopter, wasn’t as long as the cable and ran out before Tremblay reached the aircraft.  That problem was quickly rectified.

Today, Canada’s 15 Cormorants are the highest hour AW101 fleet in the world and Rescue 901 of 442 Squadron is the highest hour AW101 of all. The aircraft have a 98 per cent availability rate and have performed well under the brutal conditions they have been flown in, since AgustaWestland was able to rectify an early problem with rotor hub cracks. Jeremy Tracy, AgustaWestland Head of Region for Canada, told Helicopters his firm continues to work with the Department of National Defence and maintenance contractor IMP Aerostructures, to bring the scheduled maintenance down from the current 300/600-hour cycle to a 600/1,200
hour cycle.

The Cormorant has certainly established itself as robust and reliable workhorse in supporting the men and women of the RCAF SAR Squadrons. The proof can be seen in the hundreds of people who owe their lives and well being to the big yellow helicopter. It might be nice if we had a few more to go around.


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