Royal Canadian Air Force, January 27, 2012 - By Capt Robin Izzard, On Oct. 18, as Her Majesty’s Canada Ship St. John’s was patrolling the Caribbean Sea during Operation Caribbe, the onboard helicopter air detachment was asked to provide standby medical evacuation for a nearby United States Coast Guard ship.
The ship and her crew were on a dive mission to retrieve a sunken vessel used in the shipment of narcotics, as well as its cargo, from depths off the coast of Honduras, when a problem occurred.
Our crew was tasked with flying the CH-124 Sea King to pick up two personnel from the Coast Guard ship and fly them to a remote air strip in Honduras where we would be met by a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter.
After a quick planning session, the crew – Captain Chris Bowers and I, air combat systems officer Capt Pete Tomlik, airborne electronic sensor operator Sergeant Chris Saunders, and the ship’s medical assistant, Corporal Giles Doucette – were put in motion.
We were to fly 136 nautical miles [251 kilometres] to the ship, hoist the patient and his escort, return to HMCS St. John’s (where the ship’s doctor could asses the patient further) and then proceed toHondurasfor drop-off.
After a few passes, Capt Bowers began the approach to the port side of the vessel to get the best references for the extended hovering we were about to do. Both Capt Tomlik and Sgt Saunders were readying themselves in the back of the helicopter; Capt Tomlik would be operating the hoist and Sgt Saunders would be going down to the vessel to retrieve the patient and his escort. Once onboard the helo, Cpl Doucette would take over care of the patient.
The hovering while hoisting was difficult as Capt Bowers tried to keep steady next to the ship pitching in the ten-foot swells while two people dangled underneath.
With the ship anchored at four points and unable to point into the wind, it was not only moving up and down but side to side as well. On the last hoist up, the ship had taken a roll towards the hoist. To avoid collision with the hoist and the ship, Sgt Saunders had shot his foot out to stop them from impacting and the only casualty of the day occurred when he accidentally put his foot through the closest solid item.
“I think they are going to need a new speaker,” he said once back onboard the Sea King.
Phase one of our mission was complete when we returned to HMCS St. John’s. After a quick stop for fuel and a check-up by the ship’s doctor, we were off toHonduras.
Crossing the Honduran coast, we searched for the remote airstrip, which was no easy feat as it was in a small community surrounded by trees. We eventually caught sight of the bright blinking beacon coming from our rendezvous helicopter sitting at the side of a large dirt airstrip.
The American Black Hawk helicopter had parked in the grass, which gave us the runway to land in. As we got closer we realized that this was not your typical airport. The runway was in the middle of town, unfenced and embedded with walking and bicycling paths. Once all the men, women, children and dogs had cleared the area, we picked a spot to land.
Since it was a seldom used dirt landing strip, our rotor wash began to kick up a large dust ball. In these situations the pilots lose their visual cues that are imperative for landing. However, this is something all Canadian helicopter pilots are trained to handle as they must be familiar with landing in snow, which can create the same phenomenon.
As we passed through ten feet [three metres] of dust I was thinking of the words that are familiar to all helicopter pilots from day one of no-hover landing training: forward and down, forward and down. This allows the pilots to remain ahead of the thickest part of the dust ball while slowly bringing the helicopter to the ground. Once we had landed, the pedestrian traffic resumed on the runway/walkway as locals crossed back and forth as if nothing was happening.
Once on the ground, the American medical team moved towards us. With the full handover from Cpl Doucette and transfer complete, we flew back to our ship to carry on with Op Caribbe.
In the maritime helicopter community, we train for these circumstances every chance we get. It’s during times like these where we get to see how our training truly pays off.