Unsung Heroes of Search and Rescue

May 2, 2014 9:02 am

In October of 2011, a search-and-rescue (SAR) mission was deployed in our northern, icy waters to find two walrus hunters stranded in a small aluminium boat. The members of the teams sent out are now being honoured in full for their valiant efforts and heroic work.

When David Aqqiaruq and his son set out in search of walrus, the weather was not an issue. However, as the temperature dropped and the winds became troublesome, ice started to form and the hunters found themselves trapped. They activated their emergency broadcast which notified officials of their location.

With no SAR aircraft based in the Arctic, the first signal reached the Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) in Trenton, Ontario.

A plane and crew from Winnipeg, Rescue 340 (titled after their call sign), were first to locate the boat wedged in the ice. It was apparent that a helicopter would be needed to lift the hunters to safety. The most efficient and effective aircraft was deployed from Gander, Newfoundland, Rescue 915. Led by aircraft commander, Captain Aaron Noble, the crew would have to fly a distance over 2,000 kilometers and for about 13 hours to reach the boat.

Another plane was flown out of Trenton, Rescue 323, to take the place of Rescue 340 which had been on the mission for almost 13 hours. This second team was led by SAR technician, Sergeant Janick Gilbert. After about 30 minutes, the crew lost contact with the hunters. It would still be hours before the arrival of the helicopter from Gander.

Feeling they had no other options, Gilbert and two other SAR techs parachuted down to the water from their plane equipped with emergency life-rafts to search for the hunters. The overwhelming winds blew Gilbert off course and he became separated from the other two.

The water was nothing short of violent as the crew was up against 10-metre swells and winds were gusting up to 90 km/h. As the daylight grew dim, both crews were running out of options.

Hearing that this rescue was in danger, Noble and his crew bravely changed their route and crossed the open water instead of flying along the shoreline. When Rescue 915 reached the scene they found one SAR tech in a liferaft with the two hunters. Another tech was in his oneman raft. They realized then that Gilbert had been in the water for five hours.

After retrieving the hunters and the SAR techs, the hunters were returned home safely. Rescue 915 had an ambulance take Gilbert to the nearest health centre in Igloolik. Tragically, they were unable to resuscitate Gilbert.

Gilbert received the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea posthumously.

On February 18 Noble was honoured with the Meritorious Service Cross at Rideau Hall. Governor General David Johnston was there to present him with the award.

Noble and his crew were given the 2012 Cormorant Trophy for Helicopter Rescue presented by Augusta Westland.

Finally, both SAR teams were recognized as winners of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators (GAPAN) Guild Award for Gallantry which they received in 2012.

This treacherous mission is indicative of the selflessness, commitment and heart that these men and women show every day. Too often, these heroes go unsung as they consistently put their lives on the line in order to save the lives of others.

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