Rescue at the top of the world

No permanent human settlement sits farther north on this planet than Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert. At 82 degrees 30 minutes north and 62 degrees 19 minutes west, it is located 817 kilometres (508 miles) from the geographic North Pole on the northeastern tip of Ellesmere Island and spends six months of the year in twilight and darkness.

Cpl Brett Guitard (left), LS Garnet Robinson, Cpl Yvette Cedeno and Avr Alain Fortier serve as sentries at the memorial cairn during its dedication marking the 25th anniversary of the crash of Operation Boxtop Flight 22
Cpl Brett Guitard (left), LS Garnet Robinson, Cpl Yvette Cedeno and Avr Alain Fortier serve as sentries at the memorial cairn during its dedication marking the 25th anniversary of the crash of Operation Boxtop Flight 22. Sgt Paz Quillé Photo
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Constant winds blow snow across its desolate landscape. The only means of supply to this remote location is by aircraft. Weekly flights bring in fresh food, newspapers and mail. Twice a year, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) undertakes Operation Boxtop, a major airlift of non-perishable supplies supplementing the weekly trips.

Using the CC-130 Hercules, personnel from Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Namao, Alta. staging from Thule Air Force Base in Greenland, 710 kilometres (441 miles) to the southeast, flew round-the-clock missions carrying either fuel or freight.

One lift involved dry cargo–vehicles and construction materials–and the other two involved jet and diesel fuel. Three CC-130s could deliver 2.3-million litres (607,595 U.S. gallons) of fuel over a two-week period during the wet lift. The October 1991 Boxtop operation was the first time the Canadian Forces had used an internal bulk fuel tank.

Boxtop Flight 22–Day One: Oct. 30, 1991

Boxtop 22 was the 22nd flight of the second airlift of 1991. It was a CC-130 crewed by Aircraft Commander Capt John Couch, First Officer Lt Joe Bales, Lt Mike Moore, a navigator; Sgt Paul West, a flight engineer; and MCpl Roland Pitre, the loadmaster for the flight.

The aircraft was carrying 3,400 litres of diesel fuel, 13 passengers and a crew of five, and was scheduled to land at Alert on Oct. 30 at 4:30 p.m. EST (all times Eastern Standard Time). Visibility was 17 kilometres (10 miles) in light snow. The sky was overcast and CFS Alert was in total darkness. The aircraft commander cancelled instrument flight rules (IFR) 50 kilometres (31 miles) out when the airport lights were visible. He started a shallow descent for a wide visual approach to the runway.

When nearly abeam the airport, 20 kilometres (12 miles) to the east, the flight crew slowed the aircraft and commenced pre-landing checks. While flying in a level attitude and in a slight left bank, the aircraft crashed into rising terrain, invisible in the darkness. The aircraft broke into three pieces: the tail section, main fuselage and cockpit. The bulk fuel tank shattered, soaking passengers, crew, and the surrounding snow- and rock-covered terrain. An intense fire started, further damaging the remaining fuselage sections and injuring some of the survivors.

CFS Alert radio operators heard no distress call from the aircraft. Waiting for the Hercules to arrive was Maj Donald Hanson, the airlift commander appointed by CFB Namao base commander Col Mike Wansink, who was the overall commander of Operation Boxtop. At 4:35 p.m., five minutes after the plane’s estimated time of arrival (ETA), Hanson contacted the radar operator to enquire into the arrival status of Boxtop 22 and was told the aircraft had disappeared from the radar into “ground clutter.” He immediately initiated an all-frequencies communications check. There was no response from Boxtop 22 and Hanson then directed the following aircraft, Boxtop 21, to overfly the area. Boxtop 21 reported a large ground fire to the east of the airport.

Hanson immediately activated a forward disaster command post and in doing so launched one of Canada’s largest, longest and most frustrating rescues.

The crashed Boxtop 22 Hercules aircraft rests on the Arctic tundra to this day
The crashed Boxtop 22 Hercules aircraft rests on the Arctic tundra to this day. Jill St. Marseille Photo

Within minutes, Air Transport Group headquarters was notified that Boxtop 22 had likely crashed and the status of survivors was not known. At the same time, the Edmonton Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) was advised by Transport Canada’s Edmonton Area Control Centre that the aircraft was overdue.

A massive rescue operation commenced with participants from across Canada, Alaska and Greenland.

The RCC contacted Alert and was told that Boxtop 22 had crashed. The RCC immediately alerted the standby search and rescue (SAR) Hercules at 435 Squadron at CFB Namao, which went from a 30-minute standby to immediate readiness.

Col Wansink was notified and then activated the Major Air Disaster (MAJAID) plan. The Canadian SAR system has a number of contingency plans and MAJAID is designed to cover a crash or emergency landing of a large aircraft in the north. Resources from all SAR locations across Canada are alerted to respond with their 12- to 20-person standard rescue kits. Additionally, four large parachute-deployable MAJAID kits, capable of supporting 360 survivors, could be dispatched from the location at CFB Namao to the crash site.

By 7:20 p.m., a 435 Squadron SAR CC-130, Rescue 342, with two flight crews and 14 SAR Techs, was airborne from CFB Namao and estimated to arrive at Alert by 2:20 a.m. on Oct. 31.

The standby SAR CC-130 from 413 Squadron at CFB Greenwood, N.S., was launched a minute later with an ETA of 2:30 a.m.

Rescue 301, a CH-113 Labrador helicopter from 103 Rescue Unit (now 103 Squadron), also left Gander, N.L., with two crews with an estimated flight time of 24 hours. Another Labrador, Rescue 315 from 424 Squadron, launched from CFB Trenton, Ont.

A CC-115 Buffalo from 442 Squadron departed from Thompson, Man. and a CH-135 Twin Huey helicopter from 444 Squadron also departed from CFB Goose Bay, N.L. By 8 p.m., another Labrador was underway from CFB Greenwood.

Deteriorating weather in Eastern Canada forced the Labrador from Gander to turn back and the Twin Huey was cancelled because of the long distance and time required for it to fly to Alert.

Crews at 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron at CFB Namao began taking apart a Twin Huey for transport to Alert by Hercules.

By 11:30 p.m., the ground party in all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and the circling aircraft had seen three green flares from the crash site–telling them there were survivors.

At 11:52 p.m., the MAJAID CC-130 was launched from CFB Namao and preparations were made to accommodate the injured in Thule, Greenland and Iqaluit. These were the closest communities to the crash scene with suitable medical facilities. With certain rescue at hand, the harsh climate of the high Arctic began to gain the upper hand as the weather worsened.

Day Two: Oct. 31, 1991

Arriving over the crash scene at 2:39 a.m., Rescue 342 was unable to parachute the SAR Techs because high winds and blowing snow obscured the crash site. They were equipped with 1950s vintage T-10 parachutes, unsuitable for use in winds exceeding 20 to 30 kilometres per hour. As well, the ground party had been forced to return to Alert due to mechanical difficulties, the lack of any useful navigation equipment and vehicles capable of traversing the steep slopes of the Sheridan River valley which lay between them and the crash site.

Adding to the problem, staff rotated through CFS Alert every six months and few present had any personal knowledge of the local terrain. Conditions at this point were pitch black, with 50 kilometre to 80 kilometre-an-hour winds, temperatures of – 20C to -30C and zero visibility from blowing snow: a true Arctic whiteout.

No permanent human settlement sits farther north on this planet than Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert.
No permanent human settlement sits farther north on this planet than Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert. MCpl Shilo Adamson Photo

By 3 a.m., Rescue 315 was leaving Val d’Or, Que., and another Buffalo had been launched from CFB Trenton to fly navigation support for the visual flight rules (VFR)-only Labrador helicopter.

At 5:25 a.m., Rescue 342 picked up a weak radio transmission from the crash site and determined there were at least 14 survivors and some were badly injured. The effects of the severe cold were becoming a critical issue and the rescuers were becoming increasingly frustrated by the weather and their inability to reach the crash scene. A continuous barrage of airborne flares from the circling Hercules aircraft provided sufficient light for the SAR Techs to jump if the storm abated.

A second ground party attempt with SAR Techs from Namao and staff from Alert, using light provided from the airborne flares, attempted to reach the crash site using poor quality terrain maps and an altimeter built into a wristwatch. A Greenland Air Bell 212 attempted to make the trip from Thule but two hours later was forced to return due to the severe weather.

Meanwhile, the Edmonton RCC had located two United States Army HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska and had obtained permission to use them in the rescue attempt. A Lockheed C-5 Galaxy aircraft was located to transport the two helicopters to Thule and a U.S. Air Force HC-130 was re-routed to provide air-to-air refuelling for the helicopters once they were assembled in Thule.

At 1:15 p.m., radio contact was lost with the survivors and the ground rescue teams were forced to return once again to Alert. However, on their third attempt, the ground team crossed the Sheridan River and slowly made its way towards the crash site and the survivors.

In the next few hours, the drama continued to unfold: the 408 Squadron Twin Huey left CFB Namao in a CC-130; the Buffalo escorting the rescue Labradors went unserviceable in Kuujjuaq, Que., and was replaced by a CC-130. One of the Labradors then went unserviceable and shortly after the long-range navigation system failed in the second Labrador.

This helicopter, Rescue 315, continued on using dead reckoning until a CP-140 Aurora from the RCAF’s then Maritime Air Group arrived to escort it for the remaining 20 hours of flight time. By 11:50 p.m. it had reached Clyde River on the coast of Baffin Island and was en route to Pond Inlet.

At 11:55 p.m., SAR Techs from the Rescue 305 circling Hercules (piloted by Maj Marv Macaulay of CFB Greenwood) seized a moment of opportunity and despite the winds still being above their safe landing speed, parachuted from far lower than the reported 1,000 feet, into the gale below.

Landing without major injury, they quickly started first aid and relayed the conditions to the command centre. A second drop of SAR Techs quickly followed from Rescue 342 the Edmonton CC-130. The SAR Techs jumped from extremely low altitudes with some minor injuries and quickly assisted the first team in stabilizing the survivors. With the exception of one toboggan, all air-dropped supplies were blown away after landing and non-recoverable. Reportedly, SAR Techs hit the ground almost immediately after leaving the aircraft as their parachutes were deployed via static lines, indicating how low they actually jumped. All jumpers recall this and some were confused at hitting the ground too early and believed their canopies opened violently and, that they had impacted other jumpers in the air. In reality they were being dragged along the snow with their own inflated canopies.

The cairn commemorating the crash rests just metres from the tail of CC-130 Hercules 322.
The cairn commemorating the crash rests just metres from the tail of CC-130 Hercules 322. Sgt Paz Quillé Photo

It had been 31 hours and 25 minutes since Boxtop 22 had crashed. The first SAR Techs to reach the victims were WO Arnie Macaulay, MCpl Bruce Best, Cpl Eric Larouche, Cpl Ben House and MCpl Alain Houle.

Day Three: Nov. 1. 1991

Two and a half hours after the SAR Techs landed, the ground team (led by WO Fred Ritchie, a 20-year SAR Tech from CFB Namao, and the other SAR Techs) reached the crash site and provided heated shelter for the survivors and additional survival gear.

The ground party, travelling in total whiteout conditions with no navigational equipment, encountered many problems along the way but their biggest scare and near loss of several members occurred when they nearly drove into a large ravine, not having seen it until the last second.

At one time, there were 26 rescuers at the scene. The CC-130 with the 408 Squadron Twin Huey on board had landed at Alert and in eight hours after landing in Alert the maintenance crew had re-assembled and successfully test flown the helicopter and dispatched it to the crash site. The crew, equipped with some of the first night vision goggles in the Canadian Forces, immediately began airlifting the survivors to an awaiting medevac Hercules at Alert.

As the last load of survivors was lifted from the crash scene, the HH-60s arrived and assisted in returning the SAR Techs to Alert.

By 8:15 p.m. all survivors were southbound. The entire rescue operation had taken 51 hours and 45 minutes.

The ingenuity and the ability to locate, coordinate and direct a rescue effort of this magnitude was the result of extremely well trained and highly motivated personnel.

Present-day

In the 25 years since the Boxtop 22 crash, major changes have occurred within the Canadian Forces Search and Rescue (CFSAR) organization and the RCAF itself. CFB Namao was closed as an air force base in 1994 and 435 Squadron was relocated to 17 Wing in Winnipeg, Man. 408 Squadron remained at what is now called CFB Edmonton, to provide support to the Canadian Army’s Mechanized Brigade. Boxtop operations are now all out of 8 Wing Trenton using a CC-177 Globemaster III from 429 Transport Squadron and two CC-130J Hercules from 436 Transport Squadron.

The Canadian Forces School of Search and Rescue (CFSSAR) officially opened in 1998 at 19 Wing Comox after the SAR Techs moved from Edmonton after 435 relocated. The last course in Edmonton ended in 1995 and the school moved in 1996 with a first course starting in Comox in 1997 and graduating in 1998.

435 Squadron is now flying the CC-130H, providing air mobility, air refuelling and SAR support to a much larger area of Canada. Seventeen new CC-130J Hercules aircraft have been procured over the past six years and all of the older CC-130Es have been phased out. Both 413 and 442 Squadrons continue to operate the CC-130H.

Boxtop operations now use a CC-177 Globemaster III from 429 Transport Squadron and two CC-130J Hercules from 436 Transport Squadron.
Boxtop operations now use a CC-177 Globemaster III from 429 Transport Squadron and two CC-130J Hercules from 436 Transport Squadron. MCpl Shilo Adamson Photo

The CH-113A Labrador was replaced by the CH-149 Cormorant. The other specifically tasked aircraft is the CC-115 Buffalo. The Buffalo is aging and a contract award to replace both it and the CC-130H is expected in late 2016 or early 2017. The contenders include the Alenia Aermacchi C-27J and the Airbus C295W.

After every SAR event there is a post-op briefing. The one after Boxtop 22 detailed a number of shortcomings, particularly in the equipment being provided to the SAR teams. Because the rescue was a very high profile event in both Canada and worldwide, the purchase of new equipment was approved and a number of improvements and operational changes have occurred in the last 25 years.

Equipment changes for the SAR Techs have been significant. When the SAR Techs parachuted into the Boxtop 22 crash site they were using an obsolete army parachute, a round 32-foot-in diameter canopy that had been modified similar to 1960s sport parachutes known as the TU-7. The modification was the removal of some canopy material to provide a simple steering function. There was little capability to safely use this parachute in winds higher than 20 to 30 kilometres per hour when used as a learning sport parachute for novices, much less for a heavily loaded Pararescue Tech in a blizzard. Despite years of requesting more modern equipment, it took the Boxtop 22 publicity to finally open the government purse strings in 1993 to buy modern rectangular parachutes with high manoeuvrability and the performance to use in winds up to 50 kilometres per hour during training.

Operational jumps are not limited by altitude and wind conditions, as jumping is a risk-management decision, if there is potential to save a life. A judgment call is made on-scene based on available information. The multiple MAJAID kits have been reduced to one larger kit located at CFB Trenton.

Personal equipment has changed from a small belly pack known as a penetration kit to a large backpack, loaded with numerous first aid components including injectable painkillers. A supplemental pack known as a SKED, carrying a collapsible stretcher, a toboggan with a spine board and survival equipment which is deployed depending on the need of survivors. Other tents and survival extraction equipment is available in both fixed-wing and rotary-wing SAR aircraft.

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One of the problems dropping equipment during the Boxtop rescue was the equipment landing and high winds keeping the parachute canopy open so the toboggans and survival kits disappeared in the blizzard. This was solved by the addition of a self-releasing link in one side of the parachute lines (risers) attached to the cargo.

It took the Boxtop 22 publicity to finally open the government purse strings to buy modern rectangular parachutes.
It took the Boxtop 22 publicity to finally open the government purse strings to buy modern rectangular parachutes. Cpl Jessye Therrien Photo

Pre-set for a certain number of seconds after leaving the aircraft, the GD500 will open as soon as there is any slack in the riser, thereby allowing one side of the canopy to release and stop any further ground movement. A small electronic “screamer” is also attached to each load, activated when the load leaves the aircraft. The screamer can be heard for hundreds of metres. Finding the load in heavy trees, rough terrain, or in the dark, is now much easier.

SAR Techs are chosen from serving members of the Canadian Forces. It is a desired trade and the selection and training is very rigorous. Thirty-five personnel are chosen for each two-week selection course. Approximately 12 are picked to attend an 11-month course at CFSSAR. Existing qualified SAR Techs are constantly fine tuning their abilities at the school. Additionally, the school trains approximately 250 RCAF students each year in sea-survival skills.

Canada is now divided into three main Search and Rescue Regions, (SRRs): Victoria SRR, Trenton SRR and Halifax SRR, with each having a Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) as the primary operations centre for its zone. The JRCC is also involved with ground and nautical SAR. Presently there are RCAF SAR detachments at 19 Wing Comox, B.C.; 17 Wing Winnipeg Man.; 8 Wing Trenton, Ont.; 14 Wing Greenwood, N.S.; and 9 Wing Gander, N.L. Other Wings such as 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alta., have smaller SAR squadrons mainly tasked for local operations.

Frequent harsh weather systems, combined with the limited resources available to the RCAF, make the task of providing SAR formidable. The Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA) has volunteer pilots and owners in all parts of Canada. They provide an exemplary service to supplement RCAF SAR operations and are often first on scene in accidents, sometimes just to confirm there is an accident or to confirm there has been an accidental activation of an emergency locator transmitter (ELT).

Royal Canadian Air Force Padre LCol Martine Bélanger blesses the memorial cairn during its June 15, 2016, dedication marking the 25th anniversary of the crash of Operation Boxtop Flight 22.
Royal Canadian Air Force Padre LCol Martine Bélanger blesses the memorial cairn during its June 15, 2016, dedication marking the 25th anniversary of the crash of Operation Boxtop Flight 22. Sgt Paz Quillé Photo

As the search for newer aircraft continues, the RCAF SAR Techs and Squadron personnel provide a critical service in the world’s second-largest country.

Boxtop 22 has not been forgotten over the years. Commander of the RCAF, LGen Michael Hood, led a group including representatives of crash victims to the crash site in the summer of 2016 to dedicate a memorial to the 1991 crash remembering those who died, those who survived and the story of the longest and most northern rescue in history.

Fatalities

Capt John Couch, pilot, 435 Transport Squadron, CFB Namao, Alta.

Capt Judy Trépanier, logistics officer, Canadian Forces Communication Command Headquarters, Ottawa, Ont.

MWO Tom Jardine, regional services manager CANEX, Canadian Forces Base Trenton, Ont.

WO Robert Grimsley, supply technician, Canadian Forces Communication Command Headquarters, Ottawa, Ont.

MCpl Roland Pitre, traffic technician, 435 Squadron, CFB Namao, Alta.

Survivors

Robert Thomson, civilian, Canadian Forces Base Trenton.

Susan Hillier, civilian, Canadian Forces Base Trenton.

Capt Richard Dumoulin, logistics officer, Canadian Forces Communication Command Headquarters, Ottawa, Ont.

Capt Wilma DeGroot, doctor, Canadian Forces Base Trenton.

Lt Joe Bales, pilot, 435 Squadron CFB Namao, Alta.

Lt Mike Moore, navigator, 435 Squadron CFB Namao, Alta.

MWO Marc Tremblay, supply technician, Canadian Forces Communication Command Headquarters, Ottawa, Ont.

Sgt Paul West, flight engineer, 435 Squadron CFB Namao, Alta.

MCpl Tony Cobden, communications researcher, 770 Communication Research Squadron, Gander, N.L.

MCpl David Meace, radio technician, 1 Canadian Division Headquarters and Signal Squadron, CFB Kingston, Ont.

MCpl Mario Ellefsen, communications researcher, CFS Leitrim, Ottawa, Ont.

MS “Monty” Montgomery, communications researcher, 771 Communicator Research Squadron.

Pte Bill Vance, communications researcher, CFS Leitrim.

7 thoughts on “Rescue at the top of the world

  1. ..still gives me the chills !Although I was young when this happened it still stirs the memories .
    I miss the HERC’S buzzing over the house here in NORTH EDMONTON….but maybe one day they will return .
    RIP .. all those who are sadly missed but never forgotten .

  2. To Mario and Tony. My thoughts are with you on the 25th anniversary!!!
    Trevor Sanger (former comms researcher)
    St. John’s, NL

  3. What a good job of covering this accident! I remember seeing a TV documentary on this SAR operation, which at the time, I thought was very good. I think that that the aircraft Captain, John Crouch, must have blamed himself for the accident and his subsequent assistance to survivors was instrumental in causing his death.
    While crewing on North Stars during the late 50s it was a standard operating procedure for the navigator to monitor the radar altimeter during the approach to landing to ensure that we did not fly too low. I had two North Star trips into CFS Alert, in May , 1962, one being nine hours out of Churchill MB. Those were hardworking/fun days.

  4. Ronald Pitrie was a TFC Tech plus was the LOADMASTER on this flight. He was omitted when you mentioned the crew of Box Top 22. MCpl Pitrie was a fellow Loadmaster, and I had the occasion to fly with him on many operations.

  5. Thank you for sharing such an amazing story. How blessed we are that there are individuals training to do recuse operations such as these. To see the evolving technology is so critical to recuse and safety of all concerned.

  6. I am just reading the book “Death and Deliverance” by Robert Mason Lee. I am deeply touched and moved about this account of human endurance. Canadians can be proud of this human spirit.

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