Articles

DAREDEVILS OF MERCY

EVA-LIS WUORIO December 1 1948
Articles

DAREDEVILS OF MERCY

EVA-LIS WUORIO December 1 1948

DAREDEVILS OF MERCY

Articles

EVA-LIS WUORIO

RCAF Search and Rescue crews fly the most dangerous job in peacetime aviation. They risk lives to save lives

IT WAS New Year’s Eve. The celebration was reaching the “Auld Lang Syne” stage in the officers’ mess at Greenwood RCAF base in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, when the phone rang.

At the first peal a hush fell on the room. The bar steward answered. It was the co-ordination centre of the RCAF Search and Rescue unit at Halifax. Flying Officer Roland West, captain of the duty crew, was at the steward’s elbow before he was called. His crew quietly gathered around him.

He listened a moment then turned to grin at them. “We’re off,” he said. “Fourteen-year-old girl. Double pneumonia. Harrington Harbor.” (On the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, facing Newfoundland). And to his wife, “Betty—I’ll be back when you see me.”

A messenger set off to call the noncommissioned crew in the airmen’s mess, and within an hour the lumbering, staunch Canso amphibian was in the air headed for a dawn landing at Dartmouth, N.S. There at a bleak wintry field it picked up Nursing Sister Kay Sharpe, who’d just come from a gay New Year party, and then headed north.

The first day of the New Year came out of banks of clouds which soon turned to snow. The weather reports were scanty; often in this region they’d proved to be inaccurate.

F/O Reg Williams sought glimpses of land below the cloud base. Harrington Harbor was hidden by fog when the Canso finally came over it. The anxious crew glimpsed it through a tunnel in the clouds. At any moment even that small glimpse of the lonely hamlet could disappear. Making a split-second decision, F/O West brought the Canso down in a thunder of spray. When the crew could see t hrough the surf-soaked windows again a fishing dory was pulling up by the floats.

“The girl’s too sick. The trip would kill her,” a fisherman shouted.

In the wartime bomb bay now rested medical supplies. With these Nurse Sharpe and LAC Joe Couturier climbed out of the Canso’s blister into the tilting dory and the freezing January wind. The rest of the crew worried in the tossing aircraft. By the time oxygen tent and emergency treatment had brought the small patient around sufficiently to risk the trip, the Canso labored under a coating of dangerous ice.

The nearest hospital facilities were at Goose Bay, Labrador. The small girl

was too ill for high-altitude flying so the trip had to be made at a level where icing was serious. Chunks of ice flew from the propellers and bonged off the hull. The radio aerials were torn away.

Nurse Sharpe’s small patient grew steadily uneasier. The New Year’s Day was slanting toward noon when they sighted Goose Bay.

“Well,” said Ron West, on the blustery airfield, looking after the speeding station ambulance, “now for that ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ ”

A Party Missed, Two Lives Saved

THEY HAD barely finished lunch when the alert came again. Two hundred miles away at a fishing settlement on Mutton Bay, near Harrington Harbor, Mrs. Alexander Munge was dying of internal haemorrhage. West and his crew were the nearest available rescuers—lucky they were so close, the control-tower officer said slyly.

The weather had grown steadily worse. Gales and snow sweeps darkened the sky. The stormy sea had a foam of tossing fog. They swept low over it, to find it so rough a landing would sink the aircraft.

They stayed up throughout the night, waiting for a break in the weather. Time was important for the woman could not live long without attention. They talked it over and finally decided to try a landing anyhow. Into the confined harbor of Mutton Bay came the great Canso, diving deep into the heaving sea, the floats ripping. The take-off was even worse, for now the aircraft was heavily laden with ice from flying spray and water was pouring into the hold from the nose wheel door. But they got air-borne again and repaired the landing gear during the flight to Dartmouth.

The New Year’s Eve Duty Crew of RCAF Search and Rescue Squadron 103 got home four days after the interrupted celebration at the mess, and went to bed for 24 hours. The operation saved two lives and brought the award of the Air Force Cross to F/O West, D.F.C. The citation read in part, “. . . he has displayed utmost keenness, efficiency, leadership and high devotion to duty. His personal courage and cheerful enthusiasm merit the highest praise . . .”

That, West would be the first to point out, applies to all of the some 200 men and women of the RCAF who have flown 1,466 hours on some 50 mercy missions in the past year.

Search and Rescue had poked along in its stolid, dangerous, lifesaving way with few trumpets blowing until suddenly the public interest was aroused by “Operation Canon,” and further titillated by the recent “Operation Attaché.” Somehow these two, one a mercy mission, the second a search, established the activities of this RCAF branch in the public mind.

You read the thick black headlines when Canon John Turner, Anglican missionary on Baffin Island, accidentally shot himself. Unable to land a rescue plane due to weather conditions, the RCAF dropped four paratroopers, led by Capt. L. H. D’Artois, at Moffet Inlet, where they gave first aid until F/O Bob Race of Edmonton could land his aircraft and transport

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the wounded missionary to hospital.

You must have read also of the search for the missing USAAF plane, carrying Capt. Sir Robert W. StirlingHamilton, naval adviser to the British High Commissioner’s Office in Ottawa, Capt. B. S. Custer, naval attache at the U. S. Embassy in Ottawa, Pilot Jack Kastner, Lieut. Charles Wilcox and Sergeant J. Scalise. Flying out of Churchill toward The Pas the plane got off its flight route due to bad weather and compass upset. When an RCAF Lancaster aircraft, flown by F/O Rene LeMieux, sighted the plane, the men had left it for a trek into the bush. LeMieux and his crew finally found them 25 miles distant, dropped them supplies, a map and directions to the rendezvous at a lake four miles away where an amphibian Canso picked them up.

How It All Began

There are five Search and Rescue units at Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Trenton and Halifax. Aircraft and crews also stand by for search and rescue at Goose Bay, Labrador, Mingan, Que., Fort Nelson, B.C., and Whitehorse, Y.T. Search and Rescue uses big, long-range Lancasters, Canso flying - boats, shorter - range Ansons, Norsemen and Dakotas, and has 21 trained paratroopers. It flies one helicopter, stationed at Greenwood, N.S., and plans to purchase one for each unit. It may call on other branches of the RCAF, the Army and the Navy, and on any other agency it needs for help on any mission.

The cost for all these operations is borne by the Government. When a call for help comes, whether by trapper, RCMP radio, a wireless station from the far North or by any other agency, a check is made with other authorities to ensure that that matter is not being, or cannot be, handled by them or perhaps by a commercial agency. Then the call for aid is piped direct to the closest rescue unit, and the duty crew stands ready to take to air within 30 minutes (one hour at night) of the alert.

There was a form of search and rescue in Canada before the war, with crash boats attached to the Air Force seaplane bases, but the actual origin of this RCAF mercy branch—as clearly as this sort of thing can be pinned on one unit—could be traced back to two airmen of Troup Convoy Seven, winging across the angry Atlantic on Aug. 28, 1940.

Two pilots called Anderson and Annis were in the cockpit, flying out to escort a convoy in. Anderson stared down at the turbulent waters and sucking his pipe shouted over the roar of the engines, “. . . should have a rescue crew, comething like the British have in their Air-Sea Rescue, feel safer on trek like this . . .” Air Vice-Marshal Norman R. Anderson is dead now but Group Captain C. L. Annis is the director of just such an organization for Canada.

In 1942 RCAF officers, having gained experience in operational flying control and in air-sea rescue over the English Channel were recalled to form the nucleus of a similar body in Canada. Little by little, with thorough study and work on part of Wing-Commander R. C. Weston, Squadron Leader R. J. I^eliman, and currently by Flight-Lieutenant Robert Strouts, methods of rescue on both land and sea were worked out and eventually Air-Sea Rescue became Search and Rescue.

Canada’s peacetime Search and Rescue organization took form in 1946.

Under the agreements of the International Civil Aviation Organization, Canada is responsible for aid to aircraft in distress within the continental limits of the Dominion, and within certain areas of the Atlantic, Arctic and the Pacific. Formal commitments go only as far as assistance to aircraft.

That’s in the official books. Actually, to date the Search and Rescue has gone to meet every conceivable emergency from a pregnant frontier woman to a parachute reported hanging off a tree in untracked B. C. bush, which, after an arduous search of five days, turned out to be a Japanese parachute bomb. It has carried such assorted human cargoes as sick children, wounded hunters, and Nova Scotia’s LieutenantGovernor Douglas McCurdy, who gets himself and his party flown to his summer home at Baddeck, Cape Breton.

In the past year the Search and Rescue logbooks across Canada have in terse phrases recorded such operations as the pararescuers finding of a USAAF sergeant and wife, lost on a flight between Winnipeg and The Pas.

Operation Eskimo brought out a wounded Eskimo from Ivugivik to a Goose Bay Hospital.

From the Greenwood camp the helicopter set out with its pilot to search for four lost hunters in southwest Nova Scotia. The “egg beater” buzzed just over the tree tops, found the track of the hunters and trailed them to the cabin where they had found shelter. Then it flew back to lead in the rescue party.

When there was a bad fire in Makhovick, Labrador, the Search and Rescue crew flew medical supplies and food to the homeless and wounded.

Operation Sealer sighted the missing sealer vessels Teazer and Monica Walters off St. Paul’s Island, reported their position and co-ordinated rescue by other ships. When the S.S. Manhasset ran aground on the shoals of Sable Island, it took the sturdy Canso five trips to remove crew and survivors.

But there are notations in the log which Search and Rescue makes reluctantly. They read: “Never Found”

and, “Search Abandoned.”

With new problems cropping up daily, new ways of meeting them evolve. The most recent additions to the efficiency of the .Search and Rescue operations are the 21 pararescuers, airmen volunteers who were selected for their woods experience, physical ability to carry out arduous duties in the wilds, keenness and intelligence. A summer-long course at Jasper, Alta., included numerous parachute jumps into rugged country, mountaineering, and first aid so thoroughly taught that every paratrooper could, in a pinch, deliver a baby.

The Grateful Fishermen

Also ready for Search and Rescue work are the vessels and men of the RCAF Marine Section. Marine units are stationed at Dartmouth, N.S., and Vancouver. High-speed rescue launches are ready to streak out at 50 miles an hour when aid is called for.

At each of the five major co-ordination centres, huge charts show the locations of all service and civilian aircraft known to be flying in the area and, where applicable, ocean - going shipping is also plotted. Minutely listed are all service facilities ready on call, including Navy carrier planes, RCAF aircraft, men for search parties, as well as available civilian facilities such as air-charter companies, tugboats, etc.

When a call for help reaches the co-ordination centre, and has been verified as authentic, the men in the planning room decide on the nature of the

search, type of aircraft to send out and what other facilities may be needed. In some cases the rescue crew has to hire casual labor, dog teams, boats, snow vehicles, civilian motor cars, or even canoes and guides. Complete report of every operation is made so that whatever experience may have taught one crew can be utilized and perfected by another.

Supplies dropped by the aircraft play a big part. There is, for example, the Lindholm gear, a series of five containers linked by a rope and dropped from the bomb racks of a Lancaster, without parachute. The centre pack holds a large rubber dinghy which inflates as it strikes the water. The other four cylindrical containers float, still linked by rope to the dinghy, and contain emergency supplies. The gear is dropped up wind so that it will float upon the survivors or the wrecked boat.

Some of the crews have got so good at this mercy bombing that they make a direct hit with supplies, as in the case of fishermen fogbound without rations off Nova Scotia last summer. The men, saved from thirst and starvation, were so grateful that after their safe landing they trekked from their village to the Greenwood base by horse and cart and brought back the containers, neatly scrubbed and polished. This doesn’t often happen.

The RCAF experts try to better and perfect the dropping gear and emergency packs. A recent innovation is a special unbreakable medical kit, ready to service 10 people, brought out by the RCAF’s Institute of Aviation Medicine in Toronto.

Not the least of Search and Rescue measures is the Operation Prevention. It makes available for all civilian pilots, as well as its own, booklets of instruction and all its available knowledge. Its first and hardest rule for all fliers — incredibly often disregarded — is “File your flight plan, stick to it, report on arrival.” Then, if the flier runs into trouble en route, the area of search will be narrowed and his rescue surer and prompter.

The second sound piece of advice, if a pilot must make an emergency landing (and this is preferable to bailing out if he can possibly make it, both for his survival and to simplify the search) is stick by the aircraft. Unbe-

lievably many experienced pilots disregard this. In the famed case of Operation Attaché, for example, the crew and passengers trekked off into the bush by themselves. Proper rations and proper clothing, with special stress on boots, is also in the rules.

The first thing to do on landing is to build a fire and, whenever possible, build it against a rock that’ll reflect heat. If it’s raining and everything’s wet, the underlayers of birch bark will still be dry. The RCAF can also tell you how to light a match in the wind, keep a fire going in snow, how to signal, how to make a shelter, catch fish, trap, what roots to eat, first aid, cook, tell time, —in fact, how to have a home away from home.

“The Wives Get Used to It”

And what are the men like who are ready, in unflyable weather, at a moment’s notice, to take off to save a life in course of duty which has proved to be the most dangerous peacetime flying?

Perhaps Ron West, D.F.C., A.F.C., who was among the first Search and Rescue pilots, could typify them all.

He is a tall, lean young man with steady eyes and a chronic inability to tell tales of his flights. He’ll say, “Well, yes, I did fly into the Arctic. We brought the guy out.” As though with deep purpose, Ron and his friends avoid Air Force slang, minimize suggestion of danger with a slightly puzzled look, and when feeling convivial, admit with sudden seriousness that they like the job.

The rescue airmen come from all parts of the Dominion. Despite their youth (average age 25), a good proportion are married. Mostly the wives live with them at housing provided at the airfield, or at any nearby village or town.

Ron West, in the RCAF since 1941, lives with his wife Betty and their 10-month-old son Gregory, in a vinecovered farmhouse in the Annapolis Valley.

Betty says of her husband’s job: “The wives get used to it.”

She’ll elaborate. “Now, a month ago Ron went down to the mess. For an hour, he said as he left. I didn’t even hear from him for two weeks.” ★