Three to a Bag:

Flying Military Search & Rescue Helicopters
(so that others may live!)

Excerpt from "Pulling Pitch." Stories from the cockpit of a Canadian Military Helicopter Pilot. A work in progress by Stéphane Demers.
To be published by "Village Idiot Press."


On a late summer evening in the late 1980s we get called out for an ELT in the Elliot Lake area. We had launched in our usual team of one Buffalo aircraft and one Labrador helicopter. The Buff had a crew of two pilots, one navigator, a flight engineer, a loadmaster and two SARTECHs. On the Lab we had two drivers, one flight engineer and two SARTECHs.
      The ELT was not very strong and it took quite some time for the Buff to locate it. By the time they managed to find it we were close by in the Lab so we got vectored directly into the actual spot instead of having the SARTECHS parachute in from the Buffalo. The wreckage was difficult to spot because there really wasn't much left to see that resembled what was once a nice aircraft. We were able to land in a small clearing which was a nice switch because many times we spent the whole rescue in the hover with virtually no single engine capability.
      Our SARTECHs reached the wreckage in a couple of minutes and delivered part of the Notice of Crash Location which was our standard message format to report our findings at a crash site. They declared one "black" and two "grey". We used this code which helped us communicate the condition of those we found without having to use more common or crude terms and to avoid confusion on the severity of injuries. The code is simple and not secret by any means. "Green" means a survivor without injury, "yellow" meant slight injuries but non life threatening, "red" meant life threatening injuries, "black" meant they were deceased and then we had "grey" for undetermined because they were either missing from having left the crash site or it was undetermined because you could not tell by the remains if you had a whole person. This was very common at fatal crash sites particularly if there had been a fire and it was up to the SARTECHs to root through the crash site and identify enough to tell how many they had.
      It seems like a rather gross situation but it was an all too real part of flying SAR missions and the type of work our SARTECHs did all the time. They took quite a while at the crash site then finally said they believed they could recover enough to confirm they had all three. They were also concerned with not only satisfying that they had three persons but also appropriate enough remains to positively identify them so the families could know for sure. People would not often realize how hard these guys worked to ensure the least amount of suffering for the surviving family members. We also needed permission from the OPP or the Coroner's office before removing the remains and it was finally radioed to us just as the guys returned with the body bag.
      We had landed in a confined area on a small patch of dirt and low grass. The boys finally came back to the aircraft and we got ready to depart only by now it was dark and we had to do an Instrument Take Off out of the confined area where we had landed. ITOs were done because you had no outside reference. All military helo drivers learned the manoeuvre for taking off out of a snow or dust bowl situation and especially for night flying. This was long before we had night vision goggles and it was not unusual for us to land out in the sticks at night so we had to use this method to get back out.
      On the way in to land you had to notice as many of the obstacles as possible and commit what you saw to memory. It might be minutes later or perhaps hours before you would leave the confined area again. So once you are ready to go you pull in power to get the Labrador light on her wheels, do your final check of the gauges and until you feel stabilized. When you are ready, you pull max power while maintaining a zero airspeed, keep the same heading and watch the vertical speed indicator and your radar altimeter.
       Hopefully you weren't drifting from the vertical and by about 500 feet above what you remembered the obstacles to be, you start to fly off. Put the nose down five degrees, build your speed to about 75 knots and then raise the nose to maintain that speed and power setting. Hopefully you would get a climb of about 1200 or so feet per minute, and not hit any terrain of course. I know helicopter crews used this method until NVGs became common in most fleets and to my knowledge no one ever had an accident using it. It was still a pretty challenging departure to do right and you really hoped you had been real observant on your way in and that your altimeter setting had not changed too much since your last update. There was never a doubt that hitting Cumulus Granite would hurt and we studiously avoided it.
     As we flew out of a very sparsely settled area we had no way of knowing a thick layer of haze had developed and we spent a very suspenseful 30-minute flight out of the woods. It was totally IMC but thankfully we were able to dial in the NDB for the Elliot Lake Airport. Our only other navigational aid would have been our Omega which most of the time was pure crap. It wasn't unusual for the Omega to navigate OK for a while until you slowed down too much or landed and took off again. That use to confuse the hell out of it because it was really suited for a fixed wing aircraft and not a machine that could zero it's groundspeed like us. More than once while I knew I was in Northern Ontario the Omega was telling me I was off the coast of Bermuda and doing 350 knots groundspeed! A very unlikely occurrence in the old "Labrador love machine".
      We set up for the approach into Elliot Lake but were glad to see the runway lights from a couple of miles back and made an uneventful VFR landing on the ramp by the small terminal building. The whole flight was on the dials right up to then as the airport is quite a ways out of town. It made for a nerve-wracking evening and on top of the flying challenges there is the smell. No training on earth can prepare you for that smell when you are carrying the remains of crash site fatalities where there was a fire and now it's hours later, hot and humid and you are tired and stressed already. Some guys had a real hard time with that but it was all part of the job.
     By the time we arrived the Rescue Coordination Centre staff had contacted the local ambulance service and Ontario Provincial Police so an ambulance and cruiser would greet us at the airport. With survivors we would simply lower our aft ramp and hustle them off to the ambulance. With fatalities there was no need to rush so we just shut down. Once the rotors stopped the EMT and an OPP came up the aft ramp to assist. The gal from the ambulance got the picture right away when she saw only one body bag.
     The OPP guy was young and keen, obviously very excited with the whole situation and this large helo landing at night fresh off of a daring rescue. He kept asking where they were and he repeatedly referred to them as survivors. The look on the EMT's face as she tried to gently break the news to him was of desperation but he still persisted. Finally the SARTECH Leader couldn't stand it anymore and screamed it out at him, "Look buddy, all three of 'em are in the damn bag, OK!" It finally registered with him, he turned pasty white and rushed off our aft ramp and puked his guts out on the tarmac.
     We all shrugged it off of course. I was becoming accustomed to how the SAR community dealt with such frequent sadness and death. A mix of black humour and denial or at the very least a seeming gift for just forgetting the entire events nearly as soon as they happened. As was often the way with the Lab, the aircraft was unserviceable the next morning and we spent most of the day waiting for the Buffalo to bring us parts only to have it nearly crash on landing. I don't remember what the heck those boys were doing but I remember our crew sitting outside waiting as the Buffalo came in. The runway at Elliot Lake is slightly elevated from the surrounding ground but I was still in shock when the Buff disappeared from view just before touchdown.
     They had a done an NDB approach and broke out of cloud already part way through their downwind leg and chose to do a modified approach. You could tell they had rushed the circuit and their line up on final was low, tight and never really set up straight. It scared the hell out of us when they banked at least 60 degrees and dropped almost completely out of sight on very short final. The aircraft then roared and bounded nose up as it lined up and rolled wings level for the runway. Once over the runway the power chopped, and the aircraft dropped very heavy on it's gear much to our astonishment.
     When they rolled up I couldn't help but ask them if they were OK and who the hell was driving? They were obviously embarrassed by it all and especially the aircraft Captain because it was a fairly new First Officer whom he had allowed to go too far. Scary monsters but I truly believe we almost saw that aircraft miss the runway that day. All I could think of was that after picking those three up the night before I really didn't want to rush to the end of the runway and pick up our own guys. We got our machine fixed up in short order with those parts and by late evening we were back at 9 hangar in Trenton.
      You would think that guys ran straight home after a mission like that but most of us would stay and have a couple of beers to unwind, especially the SARTECHS. To this day I don't really understand how they do it but I am extremely grateful that they are out there and willing to do what they do, "So That Others May Live". God bless them all.

Note from the Editor.  If you liked that - check out Stéphane Demers other story,  Right Flight Wrong Rock.

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Editor John S Goulet


Last modified on March 05, 2006 .
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