Rescue recognition

Kevin Higgins
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Accolades continue for 103 Squadron crew

When the call came into 103 Search and Rescue in Gander just over a year ago, there was no telling what five members of the squadron would face from that moment on.

MORE AWARDS – Capt. Jonathon Groten was one the five-member crew of Rescue 912 that saved the lives of three stranded turr hunters in Indian Bay on Feb. 3, 2013. The crew, who were all stationed at 103 Squadron in Gander at the time, received two awards of recognition within the last month. Capt. Groten proudly holds the Aviation Week Heroism Award, right, and Sikorsky Humanitarian Award.

That’s the nature of being a member of Canada’s military search and rescue — it’s receive a call for help and respond.

That’s just what Captain Jonathon Groten, Captain Aaron Noble, Master Corporal Mark Vokey, Sargent Brad Hiscock and then-Master Warrant Officer Jeffery Warden did on Feb. 3, 2013.

And while what they faced on this rescue mission provided some unexpected challenges, it’s what has occurred since that has been the most surprising.

Late last year, the crew was recognized with two prestigious awards — the Cormorant Trophy, and the Prince Philip Helicopter Rescue Award from the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators (GAPAN).

And within the past month, the crew received two more awards — the Aviation Week Heroism Award and Sikorsky Humanitarian Award — for the rescue of three stranded turr hunters in a 16-foot aluminum boat in Indian Bay.

Capt. Groten attended both ceremonies to accept the awards on behalf of the crew, and is one of only two of the five-member crew still based in Gander. For him, receiving the awards, as well as the previous two, was quite an honour.

“We never expected any recognition for this, it just turned out this way,” he said. “It’s quite the honour, and somewhat surprising that word gets out around the world about our search and rescues. However, it’s not surprising our missions were considered among the most challenging in the world, as we face some of the most challenging conditions.”

In the case of Rescue 912, the crew was challenged right from the outset, as it had to wait for ground crews to clear a path through drifting snow from the squadron’s hangar to the runway at Gander International Airport. The conditions also presented itself with surface visibility a half-mile, the ceiling at 200 feet, and icing conditions prevailing in the clouds, and the crew left under the impression it would have to go to Deer Lake upon picking up the hunters.

From there, flying conditions were terrible, and at one point, calling off the rescue was considered.

It wasn’t, and about two miles from the hunters’ location, Capt. Noble made the decision to turn the helicopter 180 degrees and travel to the hunters backwards as it provided better control. However, it meant that Sgt. Hiscock, MWO Warden, and MCpl Mark Vokey were the only ones who could watch for obstacles and search for the hunters.

This maneuver also presented a concern for fuel, and after a quick recalculation, it was decided the rescue attempt would go ahead and if it exceeded the time limit to allow the trip to Deer Lake, they would land on the shoreline and shutdown.

However, this decision didn’t have to be made, as the crew, despite very poor weather conditions, managed to get all three hunters safely aboard the Cormorant helicopter with enough fuel to make it to Deer Lake.

With luck turning in their favour, weather conditions were improving somewhat in Gander, so it was decided to head there, where waiting ambulances took all three hunters to hospital.

The total mission took approximately 3 1/2 hours, which is about 30 minutes short of the typical four-hour fuel endurance of the Cormorant.


Recent awards

Capt. Groten and Capt. Noble were the only members of the crew to attend the Aviation Week Heroism Award ceremony in Washington, D.C., March 6.

Capt. Groten said it was the “Oscars” of the aviation world.

“We actually got to meet some of the engineers that built the helicopter (AgustaWestland AW101/CH-149) we flew, so that was pretty cool,” he said. “We told them we certainly appreciate what they do because without the technology we wouldn’t be able to do our jobs. They were also interested in what we had to say about the helicopter and how we see the future of the search and rescue.”

Just over two weeks earlier, Capt. Groten was the only crew member present for the acceptance of the Sikorsky Humanitarian Award, which was presented Feb. 26 at the HAI HELI-EXPO in Anahiem, Calif.

“This is probably the world’s largest helicopter trade show, and I sat with representatives from Sikorsky…that was pretty cool,” he said, noting Sikorsky-made helicopters were the first ever used in rescue missions back in the mid-1940s.

“Both of these were prestigious awards, and we’re proud to have received them even though that’s not why we do these rescues.”


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