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Hercules and the local search and rescue teams

The north is completely blanketed in snow now.

It's a truly beautiful time of year, and being able to enjoy it is a great blessing of life. But what about those who find themselves out on a winter's night, far from towns and unable to move because of an accident which has stranded them in the wilderness?What happens when people find themselves lost in the bush on a moose-hunting expedition, or their plane breaks down, and, if they survive, they need to be rescued? How do they get out?

Since my earliest memories I have wanted to fly, and with the first chance I was airborne, taking a tour of this part of the district in a glider. The silence and beauty was indescribable. So it was that a few years later when an executive member of the local search and rescue unit noticed my enthusiasm for planes and flying, she invited me to join the unit.

Across Canada, civilian volunteers work in cooperation with the military to form local search and rescue units that are trained and can respond in the cases of emergencies when people are lost or downed in planes and need assistance.

The military has people trained to parachute in to sites where victims are in need of assistance. These trained parachutists are also skilled in providing medical assistance for broken bones and other injuries, and people who are disoriented or in shock.

Situations like this can happen at any time of year.

While the military have planes that are often used for search and rescue purposes, such as the giant Hercules, the local search and rescue units also volunteer their own planes to take part in the search. Trained passengers aboard the small planes can also help in what is called spotting, which is the skill of carefully looking across the landscape from the air to spot any sign of a crash site or a stranded person.

That was my job. I was trained to scan the landscape using a grid pattern to ensure every point was seen to determine if there was evidence of the crash site. We also trained aboard the Hercules. Aboard the Hercules, there are glass bubbles in the side of the aircraft where spotters can sit and guide the pilot to zoom in on places where there appears to be signs of a crash or a lost person.

For those who enjoy the air, the flight in the smaller planes is easy to take, even while the task itself is very serious.

In the Hercules, it takes some practice to get used to it. The giant aircraft vibrates as it sits on the tarmac. With engines running, the plane is already loud before the volunteers are even on board. When it takes to the air, the sound is even louder.

When there's snow on the ground, expect the ride to be cool. Warm clothing is important. Volunteers are also trained for the worst case scenario, which is to get stranded in the bush themselves. Overnight camping, impromptu shelters, fire making, sleeping in the cold, cooperating and caring for each other is all part of the survival training that goes into learning to be a search and rescue volunteer.

The ride is also rough. As the large plane turns, just as an eagle swings as it checks on potential prey, the passengers inside will feel the gravity. I learned the hard way that resisting gravity is the worst thing you can do if you want to get through the ride without having to use the little bags provided to the passengers as they board. When the gravity shifts and presses you against a wall, the best and easiest response is to wait. It will quickly change, allowing you to move on to your destination.

Long benches provide a place for passengers to sit, and for those who have the task of being at the back, there is a special chair for them. The Hercules back tail opens, so that when a crash site is spotted, parachutists can jump out to the destination below. Ribbons will be dropped first to allow the crew to determine the likely drift that the parachutists will experience as they drift down to the land below. One person is seated and carefully strapped into a chair at the edge of this lip, to ensure the operation goes as planned.

Being part of this exercise is extremely satisfying, and while exciting, cool minds are what is needed in this important measure.

The Civil Aviation Search and Rescue Association unites the small local search and rescue units, and coordinates with the military for calls that can occur at a moment's notice. On any day throughout the year, with or without snow, volunteers might be out there scanning the wilderness below in search of someone who needs help.

The Hercules, the large military aircraft, if it passes overhead, is likely on a mission similar to that of an ambulance, and heading out to help someone who really needs it.

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