417 Squadron to the rescue in NWT

helicopter rescue
Sgt Chris Samson, flight engineer of 417 Combat Support (CS) Squadron 4 Wing Cold Lake, observes the horizon during a search and rescue mission Nov. 2, 2019. Photo: LS Andrew Cleveland

Cliff Kenyon

The sound of an approaching helicopter is sometimes all it takes to ignite a glimmer of hope.

And they have been busy lately with completion of two successful and challenging rescue missions into the Northwest Territories.

“This was the second successful rescue and third callout to a remote northern location performed by 417 Combat Support (CS) Squadron in the last month,” said 4 Wing Commanding Officer Col. Dave Moar. “The outstanding two-day search and rescue mission was also a good example of 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron and 417 (CS) Squadron combining capabilities and working together to affect a rescue. This highlights the great work of the aircrews and their continued success despite some very challenging situations.”

Major Alexia Hannam, commander of 417 Combat Support Squadron at 4 Wing, has said they are ready to help and ready to answer the call any time.
The first mission early in November was to rescue a family of six trappers, where three of them were stricken with illness, while at a cabin at an isolated lake. It wasn’t accessible by road or by fixed-wing aircraft and they called for help by satellite phone where the Joint Rescue Coordination Center in Trenton, Ont. answered the initial call.

Hannam recalled a challenging series of events.

“It’s a long way from 4 Wing. The weather was poor,” she said.

They easily made the first hop, an eight-hour journey from Cold Lake to stop at the hamlet of Stoney Rapids in northern Saskatchewan where they were to refuel. It was then that the weather turned for the worse, and on their first attempt to fly from Stony Rapids to Anaunethad Lake, N.W.T., they were forced to turn back.

But 417 Squadron is not easily deterred. With Maj Hannam – who flew the Griffon in Afghanistan – in command and a dedicated crew, they were not going to let weather keep them from getting those people to safety. They returned to Stony Rapids and waited for the weather to improve, hoping the clouds would lift.

”The clouds were low. We aren’t allowed to fly under 300 feet for any great distance, and we can’t fly in the clouds during the winter because of fear of icing,” said Maj Hannam.

When the weather cleared enough for the helicopter to reach the cabin, Maj Hannam and her crew found a spot to land nearby.

Leading Seaman (LS) Andrew Cleveland, a 417 Squadron medical technician who went on the mission, said he was thrilled the medevac was successful and the challenges were overcome. He said it is his job on such a mission to evaluate and care for the patients and prepare them for the flight but he said it is a team effort.

“Every member of the team relies on each other to do the job,” said LS Cleveland. Crew members assisted Cleveland getting patients into the helicopter and prepare them for the flight.

“You always learn more on a real mission, compared with a training mission,” said LS Cleveland. It was his first time caring for three patients at once.

“I learned more about what I am capable of and that the team has your back,” said LS Cleveland. “Knowing I am able to help someone, that’s why I signed up for this, to help people.”

Crew members worked as a team preparing for the return trip to Stony Rapids.

“It was a full house back there. The Griffon has 13 seats, but we also had a lot of rescue gear we take on a call. We were pretty cramped on the way back, but they (the patients) didn’t complain at all. They were pleased to get out of there and be on their way to the hospital”.

At Stony Rapids the helicopter was met by an ambulance which took the patients to a hospital for further treatment.

The next rescue mission, just weeks later, was in the same area to help a single male trapper who had suffered a head injury. His message made in the snow beside an isolated cabin read “Need Help,” and had been spotted by a passing aircraft operated by the N.W.T. government.

This rescue was a joint effort by 4 Wing Cold Lake 417 Combat Support (CS) Squadron (Sqn) and 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron based at 17 Wing Winnipeg. 435 was the first on the scene with two search and rescue (SAR) technicians; Sergeant Eve Boyce and Master Corporal Calvin Slute who parachuted from a CC-130 Hercules aircraft. They reached the site with survival gear and a satellite telephone. 417 CS Sqn from 4 Wing Cold Lake was sent to provide further help and bring them all home.

This time the pilot was 417 CS Sqn Capt Eileen Sudul.

“The weather was very poor. It was cold and close to our operational minimums,” said Capt Sudul. “Everything was going against us.”

417 CS Sqn had also made the first hop of the journey from 4 Wing to Stony Rapids and refuelled before heading to Snowbird Lake, N.W.T.

“There was ice on the windscreen of the helicopter,” said Capt Sudul.

The SAR technicians who were already on the ground confirmed the patient was in stable condition and ready to be transported to a hospital. At the site, they drilled through the ice of the lake to check its thickness and to execute a safe landing of the helicopter.

“They popped smoke so we could see if it was windy.”

SAR technicians loaded the patient while Capt Sudul, remained as the aircraft commander.

“You can’t trust the ice. You have to keep the helicopter running in case it starts to crack. If it starts to crack you want to be able to take the weight off the ice.”

The patient was loaded in about seven minutes.

“It’s not every day that’s as challenging as this one was,” said Capt Sudul.
She applauded the SAR technicians from 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron who parachuted to the site.

“They are the ones who take the big risks.”

417 Sqn Presentations
Crew members of 417 Combat Support Squadron pose in front of a CH-146 Griffon helicopter, at Hangar 6, 4 Wing Cold Lake, on November 29, 2019. From left to right: LS Andrew Cleveland, Capt Matt Rowe, Maj Alexia Hannam, Capt Eillen Sudul, Sgt Christian Samson, Cpl Aaron Devost. Photo: Cpl Justin Roy, 4 Wing Imaging