by Ray Dick
There was a storm raging on the North Atlantic when crew members of HMCS Calgary got the call. The Greek-registered bulk carrier ship Mount Olympus was foundering and in danger of sinking in heavy seas approximately 2,000 kilometres southeast of Halifax. The 30-man crew, most of them Romanians, wanted off.
Among those preparing for the rescue mission as the Canadian ship raced to within helicopter range of the stricken vessel was United States Navy Lieutenant-Commander Bill Erhardt. The American was on the ship because he was participating in a Canadian Forces program that few Canadians have heard anything about. It’s called the Canadian Forces exchange program and at last count more than 180 Canadian Forces service personnel were involved in exchanges with armed forces personnel from the U.S., United Kingdom, Australia, France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
The exchange program’s aim is to “maintain, augment and extend the level of operational and technical knowledge and skills” essential to the Canadian Forces, notes Captain Dave Harris, who manages the program from National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa. “As of November 1996, we have 90 personnel exchanges with the U.S., 68 with the U.K., 10 with Australia, 10 with France, two with Germany, one with Belgium and two with the Netherlands.
Harris says a second objective is the “creation of an atmosphere of goodwill and a sense of co-operation between Canadian Forces and participating foreign forces or agencies.” He also notes there is little cost to the host country because salaries are still paid by the visitor’s country. “The Canadian personnel who are involved in exchanges would probably have had a posting in any case. Posting costs are similar whether the person is located here or outside the country.”
In some cases, extra allowances are paid to exchange personnel who face high cost-of-living situations, or to married personnel who face special costs for their children’s education.
Most of the time, the exchanges, which last between two and three years, introduce visiting personnel to work that’s fairly routine. But occasionally–as Erhardt will attest–the job swaps in the military can get pretty exciting. He was part of the helicopter rescue team that was dispatched from HMCS Calgary on Dec. 2, 1995. “It was very stormy and there was no moon,” recalls Erhardt, who served as the helicopter’s co-pilot. “There were 30-foot seas and strong winds. When we arrived, the ship was half full of water.”
Erhardt helped Canadian Forces Major Daniel Burden–then a captain–keep the Sea King helicopter in a steady hover over the stricken vessel for four hours. “Because of the wind, we hovered backwards, our tail pointing towards the ship’s forecastle.”
While this was going on, Sergeant Frederick Vallis and Captain Gordon Sharpe–then a lieutenant–operated the hoist that enabled the rescue team to lower Master Corporal Robert Fisher onto the rolling and pitching deck of the Mount Olympus. This dangerous manoeuvre was repeated 30 times until all 30 people were rescued. For their action, Fisher received the Star of Courage, while Burden was awarded the Meritorious Service Cross. For his part in the mission, Erhardt, along with Vallis and Sharpe, received the Meritorious Service Medal. These awards, which are among Canada’s top military honors, were presented last August by Gov. Gen. Roméo LeBlanc.
“He (Erhardt) is a good spokesman for the exchange program,” says U.S. Navy Capt. Randy Stapleford of the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa. “It’s not that usual to have one of our exchange officers awarded such a prestigious medal by the host country.”
Erhardt joined the U.S. Navy in 1985 and was flying Sea Hawk helicopters out of Mayport, Fla., before coming to Canada in exchange for Capt. R.G. Gascoigne in 1995. The latter says he is enjoying the “nice weather” in Florida while instructing on Sea Hawk helicopters at the naval base in Mayport. Gascoigne, who joined the Forces in 1986 at Halifax, took his basic officer training in Chilliwack, B.C. He received helicopter training in Portage la Prairie, Man., and then served on various Canadian navy ships during the Persian Gulf War. Before taking the exchange position in Florida, Gascoigne was an instructor on Sea King helicopters at 423 Squadron in Shearwater, N.S.
Asked how he got involved in the exchange program, Gascoigne says he just asked for it. “I wanted to travel and I wanted to fly something new…. It’s certainly a different way of life down here, but the weather is good.”
He says the Sea Hawk has a lot more power than the Sea King. He notes that one of the highlights occurred when he flew a Sea Hawk to an air show in Shearwater. “The interesting part was that I was flying with a Spanish exchange officer at the American base, and this was at the height of the “fish war” between Canada and Spain.” At the time, feelings and rhetoric were running high in both countries; it was just after then-Canadian fisheries minister Brian Tobin paraded before the world press with the illegal nets seized from Spanish trawlers. “Yes, it was an interesting helicopter trip,” adds Gascoigne.
The opportunity to travel to other countries and to experience other cultures seems to be the main reason why forces personnel want to go on an exchange. Capt. D.J. Wickware, a CF-18 fighter pilot, is no exception. He traded in the winter-bleak scenery around CFB Cold Lake, Alta., for flights over the Australian southeastern landscape and the Tasman and Coral seas. While on exchange, he is based in Williamtown, New South Wales, near the Australian capital of Canberra. Married, with three children, he arrived at the operations conversion unit six months ago and is working as an instructor on the F-18 Hornet. “We live off the base, in a community by an inlet from the sea,” he says. “Although we are still settling in, the family seems to like it here. So far we have found the climate similar to that of Canada in the summer.”
However, the fighter pilot says he still has to get used to driving on the other side of the road. He also says he’ll miss the changing seasons, and might even miss “the snow.”
Wickware joined the Canadian Forces in Windsor, Ont., in 1986 and got his wings in Moose Jaw, Sask. He served two years in Europe with 421 Squadron at Canadian Forces Base Baden-Soellingen, Germany, and then took his CF-18 to the Persian Gulf War where he flew top-cover missions for ships and bombing missions out of Qatar.
An avid golfer, Wickware says the only problems he’s run into are kangaroos on the golf course and the phraseology used by the Aussies. “Sometimes it’s like two countries separated by a common language.”
Back at Cold Lake, Australian fighter pilot Flight Lieutenant Chris Huet has taken over Wickware’s job as instructor on CF-18s at 410 Sqdn. Married, with a two-year-old son, he arrived in Cold Lake around the same time Wickware left for Australia. “It’s different and it’s challenging,” he says. “The terrain is pretty flat here, as it is in Australia. Then I flew over the Rockies, and that was spectacular. We don’t have mountains like that in Australia.”
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the cost of living has been an eye-opener for Maj. Wayne Streethorse. He’s a Canadian army exchange officer serving with the 29th Regiment, Royal Logistic Corps, in the south of England. “It’s very expensive to live here,” he says. “I miss the prices in Canada. They are about twice as high here. With the extra allowance we get, we can get by.”
Along with his wife and seven-year-old son, Streethorse lives in British Army quarters at the base in South Cerney, a community of roughly 1,500 people. “We’re all having a very good time here,” he adds. The people are friendly and I have a good job.”
Streethorse, who joined the Canadian Forces in 1972 in Regina, has served in Calgary, Petawawa, Toronto, Ottawa and at the Combat Training Centre in Gagetown, N.B. He’s had three United Nations peacekeeping tours, including one in Rwanda where he was deputy commander of a logistics support group. At South Cerney he is responsible for controlling the movement of all the postal, courier and air dispatches. “One of the biggest differences we notice from life in Canada is the security concerns, mainly because of the IRA threat,” he explains.
Security is not a big concern for Streethorse’s opposite number in Canada. Maj. John Hay of the Royal Logistic Corps is enjoying his time in Ottawa at National Defence Headquarters. When he is not working, he is busy seeing the country and experiencing all it has to offer. “I was asked if I would like to go to Canada on the exchange program and I jumped at the opportunity,” he says.
The experienced logistics officer arrived in Canada with his wife and two children. “It was an ideal opportunity for the family to live abroad and not interrupt their education. We’re enjoying it very much and have seen lots of Canada.”
At National Defence Headquarters, Hay helps plan and organize the movement of materiel and personnel, and he believes he adds an international flavor to the job.
In the area of armed forces flight nursing, only Canada and the U.S. exchange personnel. Capt. Sheila MacLean has spent the last two years with a medical evacuation squadron at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. “I asked for Illinois,” says MacLean. “It’s the type of nursing I want to do, and they do a lot more flying in the U.S. It’s a different system, and a big system. We have approximately 25 routine evacuations each week, with two nurses to each flight.”
MacLean joined the Canadian Forces in Edmonton in 1989 and took her training at the University of Alberta. She was posted to Trenton, Ont., before asking for the exchange position in Illinois. She said she’s been treated very well at the U.S. base and plans to return to Trenton this summer.
MacLean’s opposite number, Capt. Carol McCaskill from Scott Air Force Base, is teaching flight nursing at CFB Trenton. “In the American air force, Canada is referred to as an overseas assignment, but it’s more like an overlake assignment.”
McCaskill, who joined the USAAF in 1985 at Ashville, N.C., says she applied for the exchange program immediately after a posting became available. “It’s neat to see another part of the world. This is a great opportunity, and it helps you get promoted.”
She believes it’s a natural progression for American flight nurses to train for three years at home and then move to Trenton to teach. She loves to fly and she’s been getting her share with the Canadian Forces, serving with a unit that flies refugees out of the former Yugoslavia. “We evacuated 120 people from Sarajevo airport in several flights,” she says. “We stayed a maximum of 10 minutes on the ground at the airport because of sniper fire.”
American F-16 pilot Capt. Brian Carlisle faces a far different challenge at CFB Bagotville, Que. While getting to know the CF-18, he is slowly learning to speak French. “But it’s my wife who’ll be bilingual soon, and she’s the one who doesn’t have to go out every day. I’m proud of her.”
Carlisle joined the U.S. Army in 1980. He flew Cobra helicopters before transferring to the USAAF and eventual flight training in F-16s at Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix, Ariz. He flew F-16s in Germany from 1991-94, was involved in enforcing the no-fly zones in Iraq after the Persian Gulf War, and was later assigned to the American air base in Kunsan, South Korea. He has always wanted to be a pilot and believes his exchange position in Bagotville is ideal. “It’s a very desirable assignment; a chance to serve in Canada, our closest ally. It’s also an opportunity to fly another aircraft–the F-18, an awesome plane that the USAAF does not have in its arsenal.”
Carlisle says the Hornet can hold its own with anything in the air, and that the only limiting factor in its capabilities is the pilot, not the machine.
In Bagotville, the fighter jets are on alert for sovereignty violations. “We had one contact of a possible air space violator off the Nova Scotia coast,” recalls Carlisle. “No interception was made because the aircraft was quickly identified as not a narcotics smuggler or a foreign craft.”
While the personnel involved in exchanges seem happily ensconced in their respective postings, Harris, the captain in charge of the Canadian program, says downsizing of the Canadian Forces will probably mean fewer exchanges in the future. “We already have fewer exchanges than we did. Just a few years ago we had 230 personnel in the program.”
However, he remains convinced of the program’s value. “You can’t get training like this running a course,” he says, adding that with the exchange program, personnel can be employed in on-the-job training in environments that don’t exist in Canada. “These exchange personnel gain valuable experience and a working relationship with allied forces–forces they could have to work with at any time, such as they did in the Persian Gulf War and in other NATO assignments.”
So far, there have been no Canadian Forces exchanges with countries of the former Warsaw Pact, but it seems more of a possibility after the demise of the Cold War and the breakup of the former Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, there’s certainly one American naval officer who will always remember how he became part of a Canadian Forces rescue team on the North Atlantic.