On board with 17 Wing Search and Rescue team over Manitoba

Click to play video: 'Hercules Ride Along' Hercules Ride Along
Taking flight with Search and Rescue Technicians from 17 Wing during a practice on the Hercules which is based in Manitoba – Sep 24, 2018

Staring through a large pane of glass the size of an aircraft door, Warrant Officer Joe Manaigre​ points to something he’s spotted on the ground below and communicates his findings to the cockpit.

He’s the Team Lead on the C-130 Hercules flying over Dauphin, Man. and along with Master Corporal Calvin Slute, it’s their job to guide the pilots back to that exact patch of land.

“The first thing that we have to do is find the people in distress and then after that, the first thing we want to do is actually get communication to them on the ground,” Manaigre said.

A member of the Search and Rescue team out of 17 Wing combs the landscape over Dauphin Thursday. Jordan Pearn/Global News. Jordan Pearn/Global News

The scenario isn’t real, but every member of the Search and Rescue crew from 17 Wing in Winnipeg has been through something like it before.

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“We try to go until we find them,” Manaigre said.

On average they’re called out 50 times per year, but 2018 has been particularly busy. As of mid-September they’ve responded to 51 calls for missing boaters, hikers, or aircraft.

“In the summertime you get a lot more people out … so we get a lot more marine traffic,” Aircraft Commander Captain Mike Carey said.

No call is the same. From the lakes to frozen tundra, the Winnipeg-based Hercules covers a wide swath of Canada.

“We cover all the Prairies, so from the American border … all the way to the North Pole,” Carey said.

The Hercules and its seven team members also fly into northwestern Ontario.

The view from the cockpit of the Hercules used in a search and rescue training mission Thursday. Jordan Pearn/Global News. Jordan Pearn/Global News

When they’re not responding to a call, they’re training for one.

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Four days a week the team runs in-air exercises, which is perhaps why Manitobans feel like they see the Hercules so often in the sky.

On Thursday they spent several hours over Dauphin.

“We’re simulating a mission where we have someone who is missing or overdue, so we simulated that we had bad weather, so we had to use the lake to descend down below the weather,” Carey said. “Once we were down below we conducted some search patterns that we set up.”

They’re known as call-arounds, which is where the spotters in the back of the plane are looking out the windows for any missing person, or object.  Once they find it, they practice setting up drop sequences.

That’s where the flight really gets interesting.

The Hercules has a rear cargo door that can open mid-flight. Before that happens, each team member working at the back of the aircraft is tethered to the floor of the plane to allow for safe movement.

First to be tossed out of the plane, are three rolls of bio-degradeable streamers. They’re blue, yellow and red and the bright colours allow the search and rescue technicians to track how they move through the air, so they can decide how to best co-ordinate the drops in the wind.

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On the second pass a radio is thrown. Once the person(s) on the ground communicate, the search team can then decide whether they need more supplies, like water or gasoline, or if they need medical help.

READ MORE: Five boaters missing on Lake Winnipeg found safe

It can be a pilot injured when their aircraft went down, a hiker hurt on a trail, or a missing boater.  Warrant Officer Manaigre recently responded to a call where a hunter in Northern Canada was stranded in the bush with chest pains.

When aid is required, that’s when Warrant Officer Manaigre and Mst. Cpl. Slute put on their parachutes and jump 3,000 feet to the ground below.

“You get that feeling that they’re very happy to see you.  And that relief that they have when they know they’re not alone, watching over them for the next few hours…or days,” Manaigre said.

Once they’re on the ground, the loadmaster in the Hercules above might also drop a tent or other gear, because it could be days before extraction.

“Each day is different,” Slute said.  “That’s why we carry scuba diving gear, avalanche gear…chainsaws.”

They also carry flares for when they have to jump in the dark of night.

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“We would rather land in water than trees. It’s softer,”  Manaigre said with a laugh.

Night searches provide their own challenges, particularly if the missing persons don’t have a light to help signal their location, or are unable to signal.

READ MORE: Alberta and Manitoba RCMP resources now assisting search for missing 7-year-old boy

“If there is no light, it’s pretty hard,” Captain Gayle Beaudoin said. “Our SAR techs are on night vision goggles, so they can see quite a bit, but that’s pretty challenging.”

While not every search and rescue mission ends happily, each team member believes finding the missing person, or object, can at least help the family find answers as to what went wrong.

And when it ends well, there is no replacing that feeling.

Just a few months ago the Hercules was called out to find a plane that was overdue for arrival.

“They knew the location of one of their cabins…so we flew there and the fellows had written out on the lake “all okay”…” Beaudoin said.

“And just seeing that, it’s very emotional, knowing the people you’re looking for are okay.”


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