In November 2021, the lower mainland region of British Columbia (BC) was being inundated with intense rainstorms, which were referred to as ‘atmospheric rivers’ that caused severe flooding in the locality. These rainstorms weakened many of the mountainsides in nearby areas, which ultimately precipitated numerous mudslides that stranded drivers on highways.
With no means of escape, calls for emergency assistance were ultimately routed to the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Victoria (JRCC Victoria), which is a rescue coordination center responsible for coordinating the Search and Rescue (SAR) response to air and marine incidents within the Victoria Search and Rescue Region (SRR). This region includes the land masses of British Columbia and the Yukon Territory, as well as the adjacent marine waters of British Columbia. As a secondary role, JRCC Victoria coordinates requests by other levels of government for federal SAR resources. These secondary requests are commonly made for humanitarian reasons that fall within provincial or municipal jurisdiction when civilian agencies are unable to respond due to weather or location – 15 November 2021 was such a day.
A coordinated SAR response
JRCC Victoria, which is staffed by members of the RCAF and Canadian Coast Guard, immediately notified Canadian Forces Base Comox on Vancouver Island, which is the home of 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron. At the time, the squadron was outfitted with the CH-149 Cormorant helicopter and the CC-115 Buffalo fixed-wing SAR aircraft – where one aircraft of each type is always on standby for SAR taskings.
Upon receiving calls from provincial authorities to help stranded motorists, JRCC Victoria made a tasking call to 442 Squadron. Because it was a normal work day, the standby CH-149 Cormorant was going to conduct routine training, but was tasked to respond to the evolving incident in the lower mainland.
We had weather to deal with in dodging clouds, rain and mist, and we had the worry about where we would land since it’s a narrow highway next to unstable mountains, and that highway was full of cars and people
Speaking to AirMed&Rescue was Captain (Capt) Evan Southern, the aircraft commander and pilot for the standby CH-149 SAR aircraft on 15 November: “When we got the call in the morning, we were told that it’s possible there could be further landslides, which could injure or kill the motorists that were stranded between mudslides on Highway 7 between Agassiz and Hope, and on Highway 1, so we immediately accepted the tasking. The stars happened to line up with a lot of competent people working that day – we had six aircraft commanders qualified, and a bunch of senior flight engineers and senior SAR Techs who all came together over the course of the day.”
According to Southern, he was shocked when JRCC said there were about 150 people trapped, but he was not deterred by the daunting scope of the rescue ahead. The flight to the Agassiz area would take approximately one hour, which necessitated some deviation due to poor weather. Once in the area, the Cormorant picked up a ‘Heavy’ Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) team as no one had access to the mudslide area.
Split focus takes concentration
“The weather was pretty poor, and we had to focus on a lot of different things at the same time. We had to focus on the 20 or so HUSAR team in the back, we had weather to deal with in dodging clouds, rain and mist, and we had the worry about where we would land since it’s a narrow highway next to unstable mountains, and that highway was full of cars and people,” Southern said. “Just like any mission, you never know what you’re going to see until you get there, so we had a lot of things going on at the same time.”
Once Southern’s aircraft departed, the Commanding Officer of 442 Squadron Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col) Jean Leroux began to assess the potential scale of the rescue ahead, and started to gather additional crews that could respond to the situation.
“The numbers of stranded people quickly escalated, so we recalled one of the Cormorants that was conducting an operational training flight, and we had a third Cormorant on the ramp, so we crewed both of them with SAR crews and launched them within an hour and a half of the first call,” said Leroux. “RESCUE 906, the aircraft on the ramp, was quickly reconfigured where we removed all the SAR equipment to allow for maximum capacity.”
Adding his perspective, Southern said that because his aircraft was the standby response asset, it was laden with SAR equipment, which included a stretcher in case hoisting operations were necessary. “Our helicopter was pretty full, with equipment and five personnel, and because it’s the standby SAR asset it’s configured to be ready for any mission we’re asked to perform. Because of that, our aircraft was probably not the best configured for the mission at hand because we didn’t have a lot of room in it, but the following helicopters had an idea of what we were facing, so they removed a lot of gear to make room for more people.”
Pilot’s perspective on the scene
Speaking of the landslide scene itself, Southern described the situation they were faced with in deciding on a location to land: “Once we got on scene, we hovered over the road for a bit in hopes people would clear the area for us to land. The Cormorant’s main rotor is quite wide, so imagine a narrow highway with a steep slope on one side, and a descending steep slope on the other side, and then add to that obstacles like trees and power lines. From our perspective, it looked like half a mountain came down with hazards like broken trees, mud and boulders, so there was no way the stranded people were able to get out. We had to fit somewhere on that highway, so we hovered a bit over the landslide and maneuvered until we found a spot that would work. That’s when we dropped off the HUSAR team and picked up some people before departing the area for the first cycle.”
“I can tell you that not everything is as straightforward as you’d hope.” What Southern is alluding to was the fact that approaching the mudslide area necessitated various considerations, like the status of the slide area and its perceived stability, and considerations for an approach path to landing that would be safe in case an onboard emergency occurred. In addition, once the Cormorant landed, crews would have to clear some debris that was close to the helicopter, a time-consuming process while in a precarious position.
SAR lifts at maximum capacity
“Every lift was different with the average being about 20 people on board – and we almost never carry that amount of people on the Cormorant,” said Southern. “Our crews are well trained, but this kind of thing never happens. The Cormorant that was emptied of equipment took the most people that day, about 30 at a time. We committed to evacuating everyone that was stranded between the mudslides, and we completed this around 20:00hrs. Juggling three helicopters at the scene all day long was something that we’ve never done before – it was a dance, and it was pretty amazing. A bonus for this situation is that our aircraft is big, which means we had more capacity to conduct this rescue than pretty much anything else available in the SRR. The one thing I can say about this rescue is that as SAR crews we train to be flexible, and being flexible was certainly the case on 15 November.”
Juggling three helicopters at the scene all day long was something that we’ve never done before – it was a dance, and it was pretty amazing
An historic moment for Canadian SAR
On that day, the Cormorant aircraft that 442 Squadron dispatched – RESCUE 913, 910 and 906 – rescued a total of 311 people, a number of dogs and one cat – it is the largest rescue ever conducted by the Cormorant fleet to date in the type’s service with the RCAF.
This, however, is not the end of 442 Squadron’s work on 15 November 2021. While the mudslide rescue was underway, the JRCC dispatched a CC-115 Buffalo for a vessel in distress north of Port Hardy. According to Lt Col Leroux, the vessel was reported to be sinking. The fixed-wing SAR aircraft was well on its way when a Canadian Coast Guard asset arrived on scene to effect the rescue.
JRCC made a third call to 442 Squadron on that day, and in this case, it was for an active Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT), which was pinging its location near Hope, British Columbia. That ELT was registered to a small Cessna aircraft. For this response, the last Cormorant that was evacuating stranded motorists stayed on scene until the HUSAR team had finished their search of the evacuation area to ensure no one was left behind. Once they were transported out of the mudslide zone, the Cormorant was tasked to proceed to the location of the ELT. That crew located a downed aircraft and deployed its SAR Techs to effect a rescue. Sadly, both occupants of the Cessna had died in the crash, and the SAR Techs stayed on scene throughout the night while the helicopter returned to Comox. A second Cormorant picked them up the following morning.
The events of 15 November 2021 were some of the busiest in recent memory for 442 Squadron and the response provided by the unit that day exemplifies their motto: ‘That Others May Live’.