Major Jean Leroux has served Canada as a search and rescue pilot for 18 years. Joining the Royal Canadian Air Force at 24 years old he’s racked up thousands of flying hours and conducted over 350 rescues since then with much of his career spent in some of the most treacherous and in-hospitable conditions on earth.
“We’ve got a wide variety of different environments, and we need to adapt and operate in all those,” said Leroux. “I think just the fact that we operate in Canada, we have to raise the bar much higher to be able to respond in all those types of environments.”
Leroux has assisted in rescues right across the country but has spent much of his recent career as a captain in Gander, Newfoundland, where he also has seen all sorts of rescue scenarios.
“I’ll get the call from the rescue operation centre, and I’ll be like, ‘Wow. That’s a new one. I’ve never seen that,'” said Leroux.
Flying with the 103 Squadron in Newfoundland, Leroux takes every opportunity he can to get out and fly missions himself, even though he doesn’t have to.
“As a commanding officer, it’s not really your primary job to fly the mission, but it’s very important I stay connected. I’m a pilot by trade. I’m passionate. I love to fly,” said Leroux.
Of the hundreds of missions he has now flown across the country he says some are more memorable than others. However, it was his first mission that really sticks with him.
“I remember my first rescue. I was the co-pilot back then… I looked out my window and I saw two people injured and the SAR tech attending them medically. And I was like, ‘This is for real,'” said Leroux.
Recently he took part in an incredible seven rescues in the space of a week.
“There was a bit of a flu going around the squadron… and this is what happened, I got called out for mission after mission after mission.”
During that time, weather conditions were also less than ideal and they were forced to get creative, flying around the weather patterns and ditching some excess weight on the choppers to make flying through difficult conditions easier.
“We go to the airport in St. John’s and we remove all excess weight and we put maximum fuel. Then we fly to the platform Hibernia, then we take more fuel to give us more length to go further offshore,” said Leroux.
This fall he received the prestigious Master’s Commendation from the Honourable Company of Air Pilots in London, England for his dedication to saving lives.
But Leroux points out that working in search and rescue is very much a team effort, bolstered by countless hours of training that takes discipline and dedication from everyone.
“They call us the community that never sleeps, because we’re on call all the time,” said Leroux, adding, “Search and rescue is almost like a calling.”
Still, those who have served with Major Leroux say he has been an inspiration to others and the people he commands look up to him.
“He served as a mentor to all of the pilots at 103 Squadron. And he was very good at dispensing advice and guidance to younger pilots,” said commander of 9 Wing in Gander Newfoundland, Lieutenant-Colonel Pierre Hache.
Major Leroux isn’t sure he would consider himself a hero but adds that he is happy his daughters see him that way.
“My little daughter calls me a hero and that’s fine, I’m fine with that. Because now she’s starting to get boyfriends, so I’m trying to set the bar for my daughters.”
He says he couldn’t do any of what he does without the support of his family.
“Without my family I could not do what I do,” Leroux said. “Because when I leave at night or in the morning for missions, you have to be confident that the house is good. That everybody is taken care of.”
But Leroux says he’s proud of what he has accomplished with the other members of the search and rescue squadrons over the years. He’s now ready to move from the cockpit to a desk chair as he takes over a new role with the forces in Toronto. He says it’s time to move on from the tactical to the strategic with the military.
“It’s time at one point to leave room for the young guys,” said Leroux.
But just because he’s trading office spaces doesn’t mean he’s handing in his wings.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not over yet. I will go back flying. I talked to my boss,” said Leroux with a smile.