Canadian airman dies after rescue

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Sergeant Janick Gilbert, a Canadian search and rescue (SAR) technician with 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron in Trenton, Ontario, has died after rescuing two boaters from stormy seas outside the Nunavut hamlet of Igloolik. Three SAR technicians were sent to the Hecla Strait when notification came in that two walrus hunters had engine problems with their boat. The three parachuted down to the scene from a Hercules plane with a life raft, into which the boaters were transferred.

All five men then waited around three hours until a Royal Canadian Air Force Cormorant helicopter from Gander, Newfoundland, arrived to hoist everyone from the water. The Canadian Forces said that Sgt Gilbert died ‘sometime during the rescue’, although exact details are not yet clear.

In a statement to the media, Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the Canadian Forces’ SAR technicians ‘some of the best trained in the world’, adding: “Canada’s landscape is one of the most challenging in the world in which to conduct search and rescue operations, and the area in which search and rescue professionals work is the largest in the world – it extends over 15 million square kilometres of land and sea and encompasses the world’s longest coastline.”

The death of Sgt Gilbert has prompted questions about the capabilities of Canada’s SAR force, after news of the three-hour wait for a helicopter emerged. In response to such criticisms that have already been raised over previous incidents, Harper said: “We have to be realistic. There is no possible way that in the vastness of the Canadian Arctic we could ever have all of the resources close by. It’s just impossible.”

Rival politician Senator Colin Kenny thinks otherwise, however: “I think the whole search and rescue operation needs a rethink. I’m not sure we’ve got bases in the right place. It’s a programme that has been chronically mismanaged. This is something that affects all Canadians and really should be a first class service.”

A military funeral was held on 5 November for Sgt Gilbert, attended by more than 120 personnel from the Canadian Forces SAR community, including 40 personnel from 8 Wing/CFB Trenton led by commanding officer Colonel Sean Friday and 424 Tigers’ commander Lt Col Joel Roy.

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