The Cold Lake Air Weapons Range is a training ground for new pilots with the Canadian Air Force. But when things don’t go as planned, pilots can find themselves stranded in the wilderness in need of rescue.
If planes go down, pilots are taught to eject – but when they do, they’ll find themselves in the boreal forest, often in inclement weather – alone.
To prepare themselves for that type of emergency, for years the Canadian Forces has been conducting an exercise called Frosted Flier.
This week, 29 members of the Ground Search and Rescue Team went through the training.
“The scenario is, a pilot ejects out into the wilderness – using the materials he has with him, his survival seat-pack, how can he survive out in the woods?” explained Master Cpl. Mark Kerr.
The search and rescue team is called in when planes crash and the weather has grounded search helicopters. Their job is to find the pilots quickly. This training exercise teaches them what the pilots they’d be rescuing are up against, battling the elements in the northern half of the Prairies.
“It’s all leading by example,” Kerr said. “You want to expose yourself to it yourself, so you know what kinds of issues the students might run into.”
Their mission takes them deep into the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range, a large, isolated military zone with diverse terrain.
“Right away they’re going to be learning about the priorities of survival,” Master Cpl. Jonathan McArthur said. “These are self-aid, first-aid, fire, water, shelter, signals and food.”
The first task for is to build a shelter and stay in it for two days and two nights. They’re dropped off with limited supplies: a coffee tin, wire, sleeping bag, rations, a saw and half of a parachute.
“The biggest problem is getting cold from the ground,” said Cpl. Jonallan Lindley-Scott, as he broke down trees to make a bed in a lean-to. “So it’ll insulate you and raise you up from the ground. When you have a nice, thick, pine bough bed, it’s just as good as any mattress at home.”
The demonstration lean-to set up for the search and rescue team included a make-shift wall of tree trunks.
“We have the reflecting wall behind us which blocks some of the wind and reflects some of the heat and light back. It’s also a psychological barrier too so you feel like you’re more at home, as opposed to being exposed to the woods,” Lindley-Scott said.
Being alone in the dark is often challenging for students in the Frosted Flier Exercise. It’s not uncommon to have some bow-out early.
If they fail, they’ll have to challenge the exercise again at a later date.
A wilderness survival expert was brought in to help educate soldiers on living in the bush. Mors Kochanski lectured the team on the importance of knowing how to start a fire – and dressing for the weather.
“Put an awful lot of effort and knowledge into your clothing and how you dress,” he said.
Kochanski also said most people that die in the wilderness do so within the first 36 hours.
“The two things you have to do to survive is get enough sleep, which is two hours of rapid-eye-movement sleep and drink enough water. Without you paying attention to those things you succumb very quickly.”
The second task is to build a massive signal fire.
“That’s your – the analogy is – phone call home,” Kerr said. “You want that smoke to rise above the trees so that the helicopter that’s coming to rescue you can see you.”
The team gathered dozens of evergreen trees and piled them up like a teepee, leaving a hole in the bottom for oxygen to come through.
When the signal fire was lit, it cast plumes of grey smoke into the sky – something the trainers said indicated success.
When students undergo the training, it’s estimated it will take them a full day to set up a solid shelter, and another full day for the signal fire.
All of this practice is to ensure the military is prepared when accidents happen.
“You know in your head – I’ve done this before,” Kerr said. “I can handle this. When it comes to something real happening, there’s an emergency and you’re out in the woods – you’ve done it before.”
Watch below: A training program in Alberta teaches the Canadian military how to survive in the forest in the dead of winter. The military also has some tips on how to make the wilderness a little less intimidating. Take a look.