It’s at 4 500 feet -- nearly a kilometre and a half above the ground, hidden in the mask of serenity concealed by azure skies -- that in the svelte Piper shows signs of trouble.
The aircraft starts sputtering intermittently. The engine appears to be heading toward full failure.
Wasting no time, the pilot realizes he has little choice. The experienced airman climbs from 4500 ft to approximately 6 000 ft.
Maybe, just maybe, the extra altitude will buy a little more time.
The little plane climbs higher, its flickering engine pushing mightily against the clock. If I can just get a little higher.
The plane levels off at just over 6 000 ft. There is a sickening thunk.
The engine goes dead.
There is no time to lose.
He clicks Comm 2 over to 121.5 MHz, the channel reserved for emergencies.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday. Engine failure, 6 000 ft.”
The Piper PA-28 Cherokee Arrow is a single engine prop aircraft, hurtling through the sky nearly two kilometres above the ground and losing altitude fast.
The P.I.C. (Pilot-In -Command) is none other than Yorkton MLA Greg Ottenbreit, who makes it abundantly clear to 435 Squadron that a crash landing is inevitable. He will need assistance from Search and Rescue, as it is a matter of life and death.
Of course, this isn’t a real crash. It is a drill, executed, on average, approximately every six months. While the emergency scenario itself is simulated, the actual procedure is not. The planes are real, in the air. One, Ottenbreit’s Arrow; the other, a massive air fortress thundering through the sky, courtesy of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s elite 435 Squadron.
A voice crackles over the radio. It is Captain Gayle Beaudouin of the RCAF. Her tone is clipped and determined. She means business.
“How many souls do you have on board? Age and background.”
Ottenbreit radios back.
“Two souls. One pilot one passenger.”
“How is your fuel level?”
“Fuel level is OK. I’ve got enough for about 4 or 5 hours airborne, but I’ve got complete engine failure. I don’t know if I can make it back.”
We have now been intercepted by the military. At this juncture, we begin a descent pattern over Melville, our crash site.
In a short time, two SARTECHs --- parachute jumpers --- will jump out from a Hercules CC-130, in a freefall, at an altitude of several hundred feet over the beautiful Saskatchewan skies, before pulling the cord to launch the chute.
The point of this exercise is simple: to keep rescue crews sharp in the middle of a real emergency. As with many things in life, simple and easy are hardly synonyms.
Ottenbreit, a veteran commercial pilot with well in excess of 1200 flight hours to his credit, shares the cockpit with a second soul.
The second pilot, on the passenger side, is a student pilot; one with far fewer flight hours, hasn’t flown in several years, and only recently got his CAT3 medical (required for all private pilots by Transport Canada) to get back in the air. That pilot is a passenger today, who also happens to be this reporter.
It’s a beautiful day for a crash, in all honesty. The sun is shining; the skies a stunning azure. Cerulean blue goes on for miles, complimented by the warm, golden hues of the blazing daylight. Its glint playfully dances across the gleaming aircraft’s wings. The slogan ‘Land of the living skies’, duly inscribed on everyone’s license plate, is certainly at play here.
The operative word, though, is ‘living’.
The procedure is as follows: we take off from Yorkton Regional Airport, and are ‘found’ near Candiac. We then simulate engine failure, and after being intercepted by the air force, jettison around Melville, which serves as our crash site.
The PA-28 lands -- that’s our crash -- and we wait.
Two search and rescue personnel, with radios, make notes of the proceedings.
As we are technically “stranded”, we need to wait for supplies and then help from the RCAF. This comes in three stages: locating the crash victims (us), as well as getting us any necessary food and supplies to keep us going until we are found.
Stage one comes soon enough.
The giant CC-130 hovers through the sky, scanning like a giant sentinel from the heavens. Even a few hundred feet away, the steady hum of the Hercules’ massive props permeate the air.
The Herc, as it is affectionately known by pilots, military and aviation buffs alike, is one of the most impressive aircraft in existence -- both by its service record and toughness.
Built in 1954 by Lockheed (now Lockheed Martin), the turboprop -powered aircraft was conceived from the get-go as a transport to get people and supplies in - and out - of remote areas quickly.
Unlike conventional aircraft, the plane doesn’t really need a runway. If necessary, it can take off in the desert in sand, dirt, and whatever awful conditions you can throw at it. It’s able to take off or land with very short notice and doesn’t need very much ground to generate enough lift to take off.
This makes it ideal for search and rescue missions, because if you have crash landed in -40 in a Saskatchewan winter, chances are there isn’t a runway around to save you. Fortunately, for the CC-130, it doesn’t need one. It also has a huge bay, one that momentarily, two SARTECHs will jump out of, quite literally, to come and save us.
To do that, though, they have to find us first.
Unsurprisingly, the RCAF is way ahead of us. They have just the system set up to find us.
The enormous hatch opens like something out of a James Cameron movie. The wind whips around the open maw of the Herc’s belly for its next heroic step.
435 Squadron then fires two large markers from the hatch, which floats out of the giant military plane. These markers are for the SARTECHs, the RCAF’s elite, crack team of heroic parachuters. They wait for the markers, a bright neon red and white, to drift to the ground to provide a visual indicator of the landing site.
Then, they jump out of the hatch of the moving plane and, with remarkable accuracy, angle their way toward the markers, which were dropped as close to the last known coordinates of our squawk (radio transmission) as possible.
Then, the SARTECHs look for us. Smaller parachutes containing rations and supplies are dropped with unbelievable accuracy -- the food drifts toward us and lands only 30 metres away.
To give you an idea of just how good the Royal Canadian Air Force 435 Squadron is, remember that they have dropped a package -- over 400 feet above us -- and managed to land it only 10 metres away from our feet.
Now, if 435 Squadron can lob a box from a distance a good third of the height of the CN tower that close to you, just imagine what it would be like to try playing baseball with them. (A score of 789-0 at the bottom of the ninth for you, probably.)
It’s a team effort. SARTECHs Master Corporal Reagan Kruger and MCpl. Louis Labrecque are two of the brave SARTECHs that jump out of a moving plane to save people in any conditions. In order to jump, though, you need a tough, fearless pilot. Well, they’ve got that, too.
Captain Gayle Beaudouin is the skilled pilot in charge of the gigantic CC-130 Hercules. With seemingly no effort, the veteran Winnipeger has no problems hovering the Herc as low as a few hundred feet or more.
Beaudouin, who bears a striking resemblance (both visually and in personality) to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts from Ironman, has an acerbic wit that crackles over the radio.
Her instructions are timely, but humour can provide important levity in any emergency situation a prop jockey might find themselves in.
We’re found, so all is well. We take off and fly back to Yorkton.
435 Squadron has been at this a long time. In fact, they are legendary.
The unit was actually formed in Gujrat, India, in 1944, to perform airlift missions in the China-Burma-India theatre. It also is equipped to provide in-air refuelling of fighter aircraft, and is the only unit capable of doing it. So when you see a CF-18 try and navigate to that little cone in the air, that’s 435 Squadron providing the floating gas station in the sky.
The search and rescue team work fast - they’re able to respond within 30 minutes of receiving a distress call.
Its motto? Certi Provehendi, which in English translates to ‘Determined to Deliver’.
After a mission well done, the next delivery was all of us to Brown’s Social House.
So, the next time you see one of our Canadian Forces, give them your thanks. They’d literally jump out of an airplane to save your life, and afterward...probably tell you that its all in a day’s work.