Sgt. Aaron Bygrove and Master Cpl. Bruno Robitaille were honoured with meritorious service medals by the Governor General at Rideau Hall Friday for their role in a dangerous rescue mission in January 2013.
“I can still remember the beautiful clear sky, a little bit overcast. A nice sun on it. The vast horizon of flat sea ice. And working through that mission with the Hercules circling overhead,” said Bygrove, reflecting on the day.
The pair were part of a crew supervising a civilian helicopter landing to rescue two hunters stranded on an ice floe off the northwest coast of Hudson Bay. The temperature that day was -37˚ C. But the civilian rescue mission went awry. When the helicopter crashed through the ice and began to sink, Bygrove and Robitaille knew they had to act.
While the two prepared to parachute down to the ice floe, the two hunters managed to rescue the pilot from his sinking helicopter. The pilot was soaking wet and at a critical stage of hypothermia by the time Bygrove and Robitaille reached the trio on the ice.
“We jumped about 1,500 feet. It was a very cold day. Aaron parachuted first and I followed him. We landed 10 feet from the patients like starfish because we didn’t know the thickness of the ice,” said Robitaille.
Wearing life jackets and moving carefully over the ice floe, Robitaille tended to the health of the patients while Bygrove coordinated their evacuation. They secured a shelter tent from blowing over with an ice screw and discovered just how thin the flow was: less than two inches thick.
The pair spent an hour and a half on the ice before the group was lifted out by a Hercules. While Bygrove and Robitaille say they are honoured by the recognition, they still think of the mission as a regular day on the job.
“We train all our life to do that type of mission,” said Robitaille. “That day was, I don’t know, in my mind it was another training day, another training jump.”
“Every year the air force is tasked with almost a thousand search and rescue missions. Not all those receive recognition in this way … I would accept this on behalf of all of us that are out there every day doing this job and rescuing Canadians and working for our country.”
The meritorious service medal is awarded to Canadian Forces members to recognize a deed that brings benefit or honour to the Canadian Armed Forces and to Canada.