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Volume 91, Issue 42

Wednesday, November 12, 1997

Downey fresh


The Semper Paratus world of Search and Rescue

©Geoff Robins/Gazette
FLIGHT OF THE BANANA. A Canadian Search and Rescue Labrador CH113 takes flight at the 1997 London International Airshow.

By Jael Lodge

Gazette Staff

In the 1992 federal election, Jean Chrétien and his victorious Liberal party set out to fulfill

their campaign promise of scrapping the expensive EH-1 helicopter project to a penalty of $480 million in 1993. In the controversy which ensued, one aspect was often forgotten – what these helicopters are used for.

Anyone who lives in the Great Lakes region, including the population of London, can testify to the role of coast guard helicopters. The scenario is hauntingly familiar – an overdue boat, a missing airplane and the desperate search for it and its passengers ensues. The service provided by both the American and Canadian Search and Rescue crews is beyond price.

Lieut. Mike Baker, a 31-year-old pilot with Air Station Detroit, has been in the Coast Guard for 12 years, starting with the Coast Guard Academy, a post-secondary institution similar to the Royal Military College or the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Although he is originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Baker notes "living [in Detroit] is the longest I've lived anywhere, except for the academy," as his father is in the U.S. Navy and Baker himself served in Alaska, Peurto Rico and Pensacola, Florida before arriving at Air Station Detroit.

Located about 50 kilometres north of Detroit, Michigan on the Selfridge Air National Guard base, Air Station Detroit conducts over 230 Search and Rescue missions each year, using its three HH-65A "Dolphin" helicopters. The station personnel consists of the commanding officer, 13 officers including 11 duty standing pilots and 57 enlisted who have different jobs, or "rates," depending on their training. Baker adds almost all the rates also fly as flight mechanics.

Among the technicians keeping the helicopters in the air, administrators, yeoman personnel and pilots, an essential role is played by "swimmers" – those who actually go into the water during a rescue. Reese Boxwell from Sacramento California, is one of the station's swimmers who says the purpose of his job is to "deploy and provide immediate first aid if needed, and if not, to assist survivors into the aircraft."

Boxwell, who spent six years in the U.S. Marine Corps before transferring to the Coast Guard, also does anything to provide assistance, including fixing the engine or driving the boat back to shore, Baker says.

Outside, hovering about nine metres off the ground, a Dolphin makes an incredible amount of noise and onlookers are supplied with earplugs to make it through the day without going deaf.

The hanger itself houses an incredible amount of equipment for a relatively confined space, with everything from wet and drysuits, to rescue litters and basketball nets, all packed in along with the three helicopters. Baker comments that they were hoping to move into some (larger) unused Navy facilities.

One problem the Coast Guard deals with is fraudulent use of the system. "It is a problem," Baker says. "Usually it is very isolated and it's dealt with right away."

He recalls one case recently where someone in the Cleveland area had been making fake calls: "Eventually he turned himself in and they're looking to hammer him."

Baker says fake calls are mostly kept to a minimum because of the severity with which they are dealt with and ultimately because of safety concerns. "We had one case where we launched two helicopters into pretty severe weather and when you do that it's dangerous enough just to start it up and go flying, let alone for no reason over a cold lake."

Like any other occupation in the government sector, funding cuts are a constant threat to the Coast Guard. Baker, though, says cuts are difficult because of the variety of services performed by the USCG. "The key is, if Congress says we need to cut the Coast Guard, we need to reduce the number of aircraft, need to take back some ships – it's like, okay, well here are all the things we won't be able to do.

"That's kind of how the Coast Guard, being as small as it is, has survived as long as it has and probably will because we keep doing an active peacetime mission," Baker says.

At the other end of the Great Lakes, in Trenton, Ontario, the Canadian Forces Search and Rescue deals with missions which in many ways are uniquely Canadian.

"The Search and Rescue technicians are trained in every situation they'd find across across Canada," Capt. Marc Faure, Air Controller at the Rescue Coordination Centre in Trenton, says. The training paramedics receive includes parachuting, diving and mountain climbing. This is due mainly to the huge area over which Trenton has responsibility, ranging from Quebec to Alberta, to the Northwest Territories.

Faure notes that although the helicopters cover land rescues as well, of the 2,311 missions conducted from Trenton last year, "close to half were marine."

Faure says part of what enables effective rescue missions is the cooperation between the American and Canadian rescue units. "Even though it's not written in any international agreement, there is a lot of cooperation."

Like the American forces, Canada has been faced with making fiscal decisions. "Cutbacks have been a factor overall," Faure says. "We're deemed an essential service, so we haven't been affected as greatly."

The issue of badly-needed helicopters has once again come to the forefront. Canadian Forces Search and Rescue needs to replace the Labrador helicopters they use. "It's been in service for over 30 years," Faure says. "It's very costly to upgrade an old package."

To this end, Search and Rescue is looking at purchasing the Cormorant, a version of the same EH-101 which was scrapped by the Liberal government.

A decision is due soon as to whether Canadian Search and Rescue gets its new helicopters. Whatever the outcome, it is clear Search and Rescue is as essential part of services on both sides of the border as the forces of both countries work to fulfill the motto of Air Station Detroit – "Semper Paratus"– Always Ready.

To Contact The Focus Department: gazfocus@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright © The Gazette 1997