by Ray Dick
|An Aurora sits on the tarmac at CFB Greenwood.|
The planes and helicopters are old–some of the oldest in the Canadian Forces–but whether they’re used to check out a suspicious cargo ship in the mid-Atlantic, answer a distress call in the Far North or react to a crisis in their own back yard, the men and women of 14 Wing at Canadian Forces Base Greenwood rely on them to get the job done.
Operating from their base in Nova Scotia’s mainly fog-free Annapolis Valley, the personnel from 14 Wing use the aircraft to cover a land and sea mass that measures 4.6 million square kilometres, ranging north to the Canadian archipelago, through eastern Quebec and Labrador, and south of Nova Scotia over the continental shelf and hundreds of kilometres out into the northwestern Atlantic.
Greenwood was established as a Royal Air Force station in 1942 and its main job was to train airmen to fly in World War II. Control was turned over to the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1944 and by 1949–as the Cold War intensified–Greenwood was busy training air crew for anti-submarine warfare. Its first maritime patrol squadrons were operating by the early 1950s with modified Lancaster aircraft in the reconnaissance role until the Lockheed Neptune entered squadron service in 1955. Three years later, the Neptune was replaced by the Argus, and in 1968 the air station became Canadian Forces Base Greenwood.
Today, 14 Wing’s pilots, navigators and technicians help guard the coast, conduct search and rescue missions, enforce fisheries and environmental regulations and, along with the RCMP, intercept drugs and illegal migrants bound for Canadian territory. It’s a tall order, but one 14 Wing has distinguished itself at over the years, serving in Europe and the Middle East in co-operation with American and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces and lending a hand at home with the floods in Manitoba, the ice storm in Ontario and Quebec, the Swissair disaster off Peggy’s Cove and other calamities on land and sea. Crews from the base also rank high in international competitions, even though they use equipment that’s a lot older than the equipment used by other militaries. “The wing has become a truly strategic asset to the forces,” says Colonel Brian Handley, the wing commander who was scheduled to leave Greenwood during the summer to take up a job at NATO headquarters in Belgium.
Fourteen Wing’s success has come despite severe downsizing and budget cuts that have left the Canadian Forces in dire straits with obsolete and rusting equipment and shaky infrastructure at bases across the country (The Chickens Have Come Home To Roost, May/June).
Handley says he’s glad the new Cormorant helicopters are on the way to replace the 38-year-old search and rescue Labradors. He describes the Cormorant as “a beautiful aircraft” and notes four of the choppers are expected to be in service at Greenwood by late next year. Meantime, he says, the “Labradors will soldier on.” When the federal government announced in 1997 that the Cormorant would replace the Labrador, it stated that it would have 15 of the choppers in place across Canada by 2002.
The colonel also says a major nine-year program is under way to bring the four-engine propeller-driven Aurora aircraft into the 21st century. He says the Auroras will be getting updated electronics, radios and flight instrumentation among other upgrades that will make the plane more capable to operate with allied forces.
In his three years at Greenwood, downsizing and budget cuts have resulted in fewer aircraft and fewer flying hours, and the significant scaling back of northern patrols. In March next year, 434 Combat Support Squadron and its remaining old T-33 Silver Star jet trainers will be phased out, leaving the base with four flying squadrons instead of five.
The colonel told Legion Magazine that his main problem though is people-related. “When you cut back the numbers it means more work for fewer people.” It also meant that the fewer hours flown means less-experienced crews. “It used to be that a captain would have about 12,000 hours flying experience in his aircraft. Now that captain might have 1,500 hours.”
In all, the wing commander is in charge of seven squadrons, namely 404 Maritime Patrol and Training, 405 Maritime Patrol, 413 Transport and Rescue, 415 Maritime Proving and Evaluation, the soon-to-be-phased-out 434 Combat Support and two non-flying squadrons: software engineering and air maintenance.
The arrival at Greenwood in 1991 of 413 Sqdn. with its Hercules and Labrador aircraft has made Greenwood the home of search and rescue operations in the Halifax search and rescue region. The Hercs, Labs, Auroras and even the T-33s are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “We have three Hercules aircraft, three Labrador helicopters and 11 Auroras,” says Handley. He didn’t need to add that they are busy most of the time.
The Hercules, a multi-role transport aircraft that joined the air force in 1963, is used primarily to transport equipment and cargo in search and rescue operations and for air-to-air refuelling of jet fighters. In use by many air forces around the world because of its long-range capability, the Herc’s short takeoff and landing ability coupled with its ability to carry heavy loads–up to 17,320 kilograms of freight or up to 90 troops or 64 paratroops–make it the aircraft of choice when it comes to delivering supplies or getting soldiers on the ground quickly. There are 32 Hercs in the Canadian Forces, split between Greenwood, 8 Wing in Trenton, Ont., and 17 Wing in Winnipeg.
The Labrador helicopter, a twin-engine chopper that has been the workhorse of the country’s search and rescue efforts since its procurement between 1963-67, is still doing its job despite its heavy workload, advancing years and the mounting problem it presents for maintenance workers who must find the spare parts to keep the birds flying. With its watertight hull, long-range fuel tanks, rescue hoists, cargo hooks and emergency medical equipment, the Labradors and their search and rescue crews are ready for any emergency until the new Cormorants arrive.
When it comes to long-range maritime patrols, the Aurora is king. At Greenwood, it’s used by 404, 405 and 415 squadrons. In fact, the big birds, procured in 1980 and each measuring more than half as long as a National Hockey League rink, are the country’s only strategic airborne land and sea surveillance aircraft. Although designed for anti-submarine warfare, the Aurora has been used in search and rescue missions and equally successfully in conjunction with RCMP and Norad counter-drug operations to shadow suspicious planes flying into Canada.
The Canadian Forces had 18 Auroras in the fleet along with three similar, but less sophisticated, Arcturus aircraft. “The three Arcturus and two Auroras will be retired,” says Handley, leaving 16 in the fleet. “Five of these will be at 19 Wing in Comox, B.C., as they are now. As well, six Auroras are always on standby for international deployment.”
Budget cuts have also meant fewer flying hours for the Auroras. With 21 planes in 1994, the Auroras logged 19,000 hours on patrol. That fell to 11,000 hours last year and will be even less this year. Downsizing will also mean loss of manpower at the base. Fewer planes will mean less crews, and maintenance of the new Cormorant helicopters will be contracted out to private industry.
But Handley is confident the base will continue to meet its responsibilities, and for that he credits the men and women who work for 14 Wing–both on the ground and in the air, including approximately 185 reserves. He’s also proud of the fact that just a few months ago, a crew from 405 Sqdn. made history by becoming the first Canadian maritime patrol aircrew to circumnavigate the globe in a trip that took 77 hours of flight time and covered a distance of 25,600 nautical miles.
The crew, accompanied by a team from 14 Air Maintenance Sqdn., accomplished the feat while travelling to Australia for the annual anti-submarine warfare Fincastle competition among Commonwealth countries. The maintenance crew claimed the maintenance trophy for the fourth straight year while the 405 crew finished second to the British. Their round-the-world flight took them from Greenwood to Comox, B.C., Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia. The return trip was via Malaysia, the Maldives Islands, Egypt, Crete, France and home.
Closer to home, the value of coastal patrols–and in particular the battle against ships that pollute Canadian waters–was highlighted last year in a news report describing how 415 Sqdn. helped nab a Bahamian-registered vessel that had unlawfully discharged 2,400 litres of an oily substance in Canadian waters. The oily slick in the vessel’s wake was detected by the crew of a 415 Sqdn. Aurora last October. At the time, the plane was patrolling in an area 60 kilometres off the coast at Yarmouth, N.S.
To get a better understanding of what Greenwood’s mission is and in particular what an Aurora crew does, a six-hour training flight is the way to go.
It was early afternoon when we proceeded through Checkpoint Charlie with our security clearances in hand. Accompanied by a base public affairs officer we headed to the inner sanctum, an area surrounded by high wire-mesh fences. In the briefing room, Captain Ron Walker had already assembled his crew of 14 from 405 Sqdn. There were six visitors, including a five-person medical team under the Canadian Forces surgeon general, Colonel Scott Cameron of Ottawa. The team was on a tour of eastern bases. “Sea waves are one metre,” announced the meteorologist. “It is VFR (visual flight rules).” This bit of info tells us the weather is good for the patrol that will take us from Greenwood south to Sable Island and then generally north to Fredericton, N.B., and home to base.
Takeoff is normal as the Aurora’s four turboprop Alison engines scramble for altitude and head generally east over mainland Nova Scotia. Inside, surveillance equipment is at the ready–sonobuoys, forward-looking infrared radar, magnetic anomaly detector, electronic support measures, a fixed 70-mm camera, hand-held camera, night-vision goggles and gyro-stabilized binoculars. And just in case, the Aurora is armed with Mark 46 torpedoes, signal chargers, smoke makers, illumination flares and if need be, air-to-surface missiles.
While over the coast of Nova Scotia, an emergency signal is received from a ship in distress. It turns out there is no emergency because the ship is in no danger of sinking, and is advised to proceed to port. The next contact is on radar approximately 130 nautical miles out from Sydney, N.S., and the Aurora crew swings into action. Buzzing the ship at an altitude of 90 metres, the intimidating Aurora finds out it is the Nippon Star, registered in the Bahamas and on its way from Philadelphia to Prince Edward Island. While nothing seems amiss, the big Aurora circles the ship several times while maintaining that same altitude.
“It’s good practice for us,” says Captain Randy Faulkner, an acoustics navigator. “We like to sneak up on them. First we fly over them to see if they’re doing anything illegal, like dumping their bilge in Canadian waters. Then we make radio contact.” Faulkner says there can be a few hundred gallons of oil left in a ship’s bilges, and he notes it costs a shipping company about $5,000 to clean them out legally, so some ships dump the waste oil in the sea. It turns out the Nippon Star is running empty to Prince Edward Island and there is no tell-tale oil slick in its wake. Still, the Aurora circles the ship several times. “We did this for a couple of days against one ship,” said Faulkner. “That ship’s captain was really disturbed by it.”
Satisfied the ship isn’t dumping bilge, Walker and his crew head home, but not before circling over the oil rigs around crescent-shaped Sable Island in an area roughly 300 kilometres east southeast of Halifax. At low altitude–and on three engines to save fuel–the plane affords an excellent view of the 38-kilometre-long island that is only 1.5 kilometres wide at its widest point.
With its four turboprop engines cranking out abundant horsepower, the Aurora gains altitude and then heads toward the mainland. Crew members are relaxed as they sit behind their sensitive monitors. Some take a few moments to grab a snack from the plane’s kitchen. A couple of others head up to the cockpit where they peer over the pilot’s shoulders at a panorama of sea and sky. After a brief stop in Fredericton to drop off the medical team, the big bird heads home to Greenwood.
The sight of the Aurora flying low over Kingston and Greenwood on its final approach to the airfield barely rates a glance from the Annapolis Valley citizens who have become accustomed to the planes.
Down below it’s business as usual at the base hangars where Major Ken Groen, deputy commanding officer of 413 Sqdn., supervises his search and rescue crews with their Hercules and Labrador aircraft. “We are ready to go 24 hours a day, seven days a week–just like firemen,” says Groen, who joined the service 20 years ago in Toronto. Sharing his five Labradors with 9 Wing in Gander, Nfld., his territory of responsibility for search and rescue stretches halfway across the Atlantic, north to Baffin Island and east from Quebec City. “In the course of a year we see all of that.”
Groen’s crews respond to hundreds of calls or signals each year, emergency signals picked up from satellites, from people who have spotted flare sightings and telephoned the RCMP or from boats in distress, lost hunters on the mainland and even from Inuit hunters stranded when Arctic ice breaks up. In one case an overdue fishing crew signalled its distress by flicking cigarette lighters at night to indicate their location to a passing aircraft. That signal was picked up by a Labrador with night vision equipment. “It’s very unpredictable,” says Groen. “About half are from people in distress and half are false alarms.” One false alarm recently is indicative. “A man from Wolfville, N.S., was cleaning his plane in the backyard when he accidentally hit the emergency transmitter beacon with a broom handle.”
False alarms aside, there have been many recent legitimate and high-profile distress calls, such as when a Russian sailing ship, one of the tall ships visiting Halifax last year, broke a mast and had to be rescued. There was also the British kayak paddler who was trying to cross the Atlantic to England but ran into trouble 32 kilometres out when his boat sprung a leak. The bottom line, says Groen, is that search and rescue “saves many hundreds of lives each year.”
Groen says he and his crews are eagerly anticipating the arrival of the Cormorant helicopters. He says the Labradors, which he describes as an excellent aircraft, are 35 years old. The recently upgraded Hercules was an excellent aircraft for Greenwood, able to fly fast far out to sea and at slow speeds for dropping supplies in search and rescue missions. But helicopters “don’t age as well” as the less-complicated fixed-wing aircraft such as the Hercules. The difficulty experienced in obtaining spare parts for the aged choppers and a few recent accidents have added to the urgency.
“The Labs are broken down more than they are serviceable,” says Master Warrant Officer Jim McCluskey, the chief search and rescue technician, who adds that he will be glad to see the choppers replaced. Nostalgically, however, “it will take a lot to replace the performance the Labrador has given over the years.”
Warrant Officer Owen Collins, a maintenance crew chief, agrees. “The Labrador was a great aircraft in its day,” but it was time for a replacement. This pride in equipment and the job they do was a recurring theme at 413 Sqdn. “The job we do speaks for itself,” says Groen. “The people here like what they do.”
That includes Captain Mike Sayer, a T-33 pilot of 434 Combat Support Sqdn. who has just returned from a mission in his jet-powered, sports-car type aircraft that until 1974 was the country’s primary jet training aircraft. Built in the early 1950s, it’s the CF’s oldest plane in service and there are 25 still used in active flying at Cold Lake, Alta., Bagotville, Que., Comox, B.C. and Greenwood. Today, the jet is used to train personnel on how to disperse false targets to confuse an enemy’s radar. Crews also use it to learn about radar jamming or the creation and transmission of false radar signals to mislead an enemy. “I always wanted to be a pilot,” says Sayer, an Ottawa native who has just turned 30. “My dad was a pilot, but he had to quit for medical reasons after a car accident.”
Sayer, whose father presented him with his wings after he completed his jet training in Moose Jaw, Sask., knows his future is at a crossroads as his job at 434 Sqdn. will disappear along with his aircraft by next April. “My options are instructor or switching to F-18s. I still haven’t made the final decision.”
Meanwhile, the base’s future looks good and its overall size impresses you as you drive back through Checkpoint Charlie, past the ultra-modern mess hall, the movie theatre, the outdoor and indoor sports facilities to the main gate. The base museum on the right houses treasures of the base’s wartime past. On the outside are some of the old planes who once called Greenwood home, including a Lancaster, a Neptune, an Argus and a T-33. “I am optimistic for the future of the base,” says Handley. “There should be growth in the long term.”
That’s certainly the hope of Greenwood Village Chairman MacDonald. “The base has a wage budget of $106 million a year. The loss of 434 Sqdn. this year means $20 million a year less into the community.” That was one of the effects of downsizing in the military and illustrates the fact that the base “is the lifeblood of our community.”