Here's a look inside Canada's most elite search and rescue force

Canada is the second largest country in the world in terms of land mass and size, with harsh, unforgiving territory marking the majority of its geographic map. Air traffic nevertheless crisscrosses these large expanses of land, boats and ships still ply the rough seas around, and hikers and the adventurous of heart still navigate their way through the desolate north to explore the country’s natural beauty.

But when the unthinkable happens – be it an airplane crash in a remote area, a stranded an grievously ill hiker in the middle of  forest, or a sinking vessel off Canada’s coast, the Canadian armed forces are among the best prepared in the world.

We Are The Mighty recently flew with the Royal Canadian Air Force to watch its search and rescue teams in action.

The RCAF’s mission is known as Canadian Armed Forces Search and Rescue, CAFSAR for short, conducted by teams of fixed-wing and rotary aircraft, which can seamlessly integrate with Canadian coast guard and naval vessels for waterborne rescue missions, should the need arise.

From recovering downed aviators to rescuing civilian boaters adrift at sea, CAFSAR’s various units can do it all.

A CC-130H Hercules and CC-115 Buffalo (right) sit side by side before a training sortie (Photo Ian D’Costa)

Canada’s SAR units primarily use fixed-wing aircraft like the CC-130H Hercules and the CC-115 Buffalo to function as “spotters.” On missions, these aircraft fly low to the Earth, with aircrew inside maintaining vigilance over the terrain below for telltale signs of the imperiled.

To better facilitate these missions, the RCAF has modified their H-model Hercs with plexiglass “spotting stations” where the para-doors once existed towards the rear of the aircraft.

Both the Herc and the Buffalo are capable of remaining on-site for extended periods of time, and they often contain supplies and support materials relevant to the mission. For example, sometimes crews carry inflatable air-dropped life rafts and bilge pumps for at-sea rescues or recoveries. They also carry a complement of orange-clad SAR Technicians, who represent the backbone of the CAFSAR apparatus.

SAR “techs” are among the most elite of the Canadian Forces, numbering only 140 out of the nearly 70,000-strong military. Techs are considered specialists in their field, trained to provide “advanced pre-hospital medical care,” and are broadly qualified to perform missions in all areas of the Canadian wilderness and North, ranging from lakes, oceans, heavily-forested areas, mountains and onward to the bleak Arctic tundra.

SAR tech training is arduous and difficult. The attrition rate for students is high, and only the best students of each training class are posted to CAFSAR’s various joint rescue commands across the country.

Aircrew with 424 Sqn, RCAF prepare to drop inflatable liferafts to stranded boaters below (Photo Ian D’Costa)

CAFSAR also uses rotary aircraft— namely the CH-146 Griffon and CH-149 Cormorant — to move SAR techs to hard-to-reach places, and to conduct seaborne rescue operations. These aircraft can hover in place while techs are lowered and raised via winches, horse collars, and metal baskets. Rotary assets are often “vectored” to the site of a rescue by the spotter aircraft, when the site of the incident has been triangulated and located.

Given the urgent nature of rescue operations, missions can appear when least expected, and require crews to be alert and ready at a moment’s notice. In a matter of minutes, a Herc or a Buffalo can be loaded up and prepared for launch while SAR techs and the aircrew ready themselves for the mission at hand. Simultaneously, Griffons and/or Cormorants begin spooling up nearby for their own inevitable launch.

When on a larger joint SAR operation, a Herc or a Buffalo will lift off with the intention of finding and marking the location of the incident/rescue with a smoke canister. This can happen within minutes of reaching the general area, or after an hour of low-level flying. Depending on the nature of the emergency, support materials are prepped and deployed, while rotary units are flown over to the area with SAR techs ready for action.

Should the circumstances merit immediate assistance, CAFSAR’s SAR techs have one very important and versatile trick up their sleeves. Its members are qualified to perform “pararescue” operations, which involve parachute jumps from Hercs and Buffalos to reach areas on the surface where aircraft can not hover or land nearby.

The careful coordination of these assets, the advanced and well-developed abilities of SAR techs and rescue aircrews, and years of experience in performing rescue missions throughout Canada has helped CAFSAR become what it currently is – one of the most competent and effective search and rescue apparatuses in existence today.

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