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Arctic Survival and Search and Rescue key topics during sixth Arctic Airpower Seminar

By Canadian NORAD Region Public Affairs

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Also known as JABAS, or Joint Agile Basing Airpower Seminar, this ongoing series of discussions is designed to bring key stakeholders in the fields of academia, science, environment, information, governance, and logistics together with their military counterparts to broadly explore some of the challenges associated with air operations in the Arctic.

Hosted by Brigadier-General (Brig.-Gen.) Edward “Hertz” Vaughan, who in addition to serving as Deputy Commander Canadian NORAD Region, also serves as Joint Forces Air Component Command for 1 Canadian Air Division, and Dr. James Fergusson, Deputy Director for the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, and Professor of Political studies and the University of Manitoba.  This segment was the first in a two part series focused on Arctic survival and search and rescue, with the next session slated for February 18, 2021

The session began with a presentation outlining Canada’s National search and rescue posture, paying particular attention to search and rescue in the Arctic. That presentation was followed by other expert organizations, including the U.S. Air Force’s 176th Wing based at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. The airmen of 176th, equipped with HH-60G Pavehawk and HC-130J Combat King II aircraft, are the U.S. Air Force’s premiere Arctic Search and Rescue professionals.

In Canada, search and rescue is a shared responsibility among federal, provincial/territorial and municipal organizations, as well as air, ground and maritime volunteer SAR organizations.

Three Joint Rescue Coordination Centres positioned in Victoria, British Columbia; Halifax, Nova Scotia; and Trenton, Ontario, are responsible for coordinating land, sea and air rescue efforts over the 18,000,000 square kilometers that comprise Canada – a significant challenge when compared to places like Europe, which contain approximately 10,000,000 square kilometers.

“Of key significance when discussing Arctic search and rescue is that 80 percent of Canada’s population is positioned near the U.S.-Canadian border, which in turn is where most search and rescue requests are prosecuted, and as a result where SAR response locations are positioned,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Johnny Coffin, Senior Staff Officer SAR with 1 Canadian Air Division, during his presentation on search and rescue in Canada.

Land north of 60 degrees latitude, often referred to as the “high north,” represents 40 percent of Canada’s land mass with less than one percent of Canada’s population. These areas are not densely populated, without many roads, except ice roads in some cases. Typically, people bring supplies in by ship or airplane.

Canada’s main SAR squadrons located at 19 Wing, Comox, British Columbia; 17 Wing, Winnipeg, Manitoba; 8 Wing, Trenton, Ontario; 14 Wing, Greenwood, Nova Scotia; and 9 Wing, Gander, Newfoundland/Labrador, can respond within 30 minutes of receiving a request for SAR assistance. However, the significant challenge when discussing Arctic SAR is distance. High north SAR missions may also require the addition of rotary wing assets that can take up to 24 hours to arrive on site.

Known as “the eyes and ears of the North,” the Canadian Rangers of the 1 Canadian Ranger Patrol Group consist of more than 1,800 members in 60 communities across all three territories. Born and raised in local communities, they provide unparalleled knowledge of the local areas and Northern survival skills essential when responding to emergency requests in hard-to-reach areas during difficult weather.

The Civil Air Search and Rescue Association, a Canada-wide volunteer aviation group that provides air search support services for downed aircraft, also provides valuable assistance to search and rescue efforts.

“As with all of our airpower missions in Canada’s vast north, we rely heavily on relationships and partnerships with local communities, which is why our team mates at Joint Task Force – North are such an integral part of our strategy when working with Canadians in the Arctic,” said Vaughan. “Their leadership provides the links we need with communities and hamlets throughout the region, so together we can protect and defend our collective interests.”

A significant challenge when dealing with SAR in the Arctic, and especially when related to northern fighter operations, is a survivability gap related to time and space. Operating in the vast expanse of the Arctic, with very few usable runways, requires fighter aircraft to carry reserve fuel in case weather at their primary landing location does not permit. Without the aid of air-to-air refueling this results in a reduction of on-station-time.

Understanding that time and space are significant concerns, there still remains a residual risk when dealing with a potential ejection of a pilot in the Arctic; whether it’s the vast size of the area of operations, the availability of search and rescue resources within the Arctic, limitations of survival equipment onboard the CF-18, or adverse environmental conditions during winter months.

To help bridge the gap, when flying in the North pilots wear climate driven flying clothing and boots along with an immersion suit. In the event of an ejection, an uninjured pilot would have full access to an emergency pack containing approximately 60 items including an emergency locator radio, rated for extreme cold, signal flares, and self-protection gear in the event of encounters with wildlife predators. The seat pack also contains extreme cold weather items including a hat, face cover, mitts, sleeping bag, snow shovel, and fire starting tools.

Additionally, CF-18 are datalink capable aircraft that provide bail-out indicators, including aircraft position, during an ejection situation, however, this information is only useful to authorized users of the SAR network – otherwise the information may only be passed from fighter-to-fighter.

There is also the option to deploy the SKAD (survival kit air-droppable); a large, air-droppable container that attaches to the centre-line of the CF-18, and is dropped from low altitude. Effectively deploying the SKAD requires either precision coordinates for the downed pilot, or visual contact, an option which assumes good weather and supported by air-to-air refueling given known time and distance challenges in the Arctic.

There is notably a very small window to enable or aid in a potential crash in the Arctic. Without defeating time and distance by moving SAR locations closer, no matter how much gear pilots have, without specific Arctic training, there is a very high likelihood they will not survive before SAR arrives.

Citing the crash of BOXTOP Flight 22, a Royal Canadian Air Force CC-130 Hercules that crashed on October 30, 1991, near CFS Alert during a bi-annual resupply of the station, the seminar discussed this example where extreme weather conditions can affect the timely ability for SAR crews to get on scene. Major Brian Noel, Commandant, Canadian Forces School of Survival and Aeromedical Training, reinforced the necessity of Arctic survival as a way to help close the time and distance gap. In the event of BOXTOP Flight 22, extreme weather delayed the ability of SAR crews to reach the site for more than 32 hours resulting in the loss of five crew members.

“In the Arctic, time and distance are the greatest enemies, especially when it comes to fighter force... It’s one thing to have Search and Rescue capability; we’re very capable in Canada with SAR centres capable of prosecuting a rescue up in the North, however that time and distance is what the significant [limiting factor] is – those hours that are spent transiting to a location are the difference between life and death,”

To that extent, 4 Wing, Cold Lake, Alta., provides their fighter pilots with a locally developed winter survival course known as Frosted Flyer. Developed in conjunction with the Cold Lake Ground Search and Rescue (GSAR) team and local indigenous elders and First Nations groups, the course is run four times a year, throughout the winter months on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range (CLAWR). The four-day course is mandatory training, for all pilots, providing refresher training on emergency equipment and necessary survival skills in the event of an ejection in the Arctic.

In addition, working in with Natural Resources Canada, the Canadian Forces School of Survival and Aeromedical Training offer the Air Operations Survival – Arctic Aircrew course; a true Arctic survival course run out of Resolute Bay, Nun. Run twice a year, during the winter months and in the darkness of the Polar Night, with average temperatures hovering between -40 degrees and -50 degrees Celsius the course simulates as close as possible the conditions associated with an Arctic bailout.

To truly get an understanding of what arctic survival is students spend 7 full days, north of the tree line, in a place known as Crystal City engaged in elaborate training. The cold and dark environment truly provides students with an understanding of what Arctic survival entails.

In efforts to evaluate the effectiveness Arctic survival training has had on survivability, when dealing with the time and distance gap associated with Arctic Search and Rescue, a study consisting of trained and untrained personnel was conducted where both groups were provided the exact same emergency survival equipment typically found onboard an aircraft. The two groups where then advised that the aircraft they were flying had just crashed and they were to make use of the provided emergency equipment to assist them in surviving until search and rescue arrived.

Of those participating, none of those without previous Arctic survival training were able to survive. Within six hours, those without previous training started showing signs of hypothermia, and by 12 hours medical attention was nearing requirement. Conversely those who had received previous Arctic survival training easily surpassed the 24 hour mark, showing no symptoms of hypothermia and were surviving handily without any interaction.

 It is very clear, that within this study, Arctic survival training is a key element in survivability which in turn facilitates SAR.

“[These discussions] are always very interesting... very enlightening for me. It raised a lot of questions, about the challenges, particularly when you think of climate change, and the change in nature of the Arctic, and the new challenges that emerge – maybe they are not new – they’re just bigger in magnitude, and of course both the US and the CAN military going into the world of SAR are going to have to deal with these, which raises a lot of interesting issues for the future,” Dr. Fergusson added in his closing statements.

At present, Canada is the only NATO nation conducting a true Arctic survival course. There are winter survival training courses conducted in other countries such Finland and Norway, but Canada provides the only true Arctic survival course, which is open to International partners. 


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