Red Deer Regional Airport will be a staging area for as many as four giant CC-130 Hercules aircraft during a major military search and rescue exercise planned for May.
About 150 military and civilian search and rescue personnel are expected to take part, including para-rescue jumpers and aircraft from the Florida based 39th Rescue Squadron.
“So when we come, we come big,” said Capt. Jeff Noel, public affairs officer for Winnipeg-based 17 Wing, which is conducting the exercise along with 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron.
The annual exercise is described by the military as a simulated major search and rescue deployment and training exercise (SAREX) and takes place at a different location in Alberta each year. Last year, it was in Grande Prairie, and the exercise returns to Red Deer for the first time since 2006.
“We try to move it around,” said Noel, who was in Red Deer on Thursday to do advance work for the May 6-10 exercise. “We try to keep it varied so our crews maintain their skills because we don’t know where we’ll operate when we’re called out on a mission.”
The exercise will be divided into two phases. The first part will involve a scenario to test the skills of the search master, staff and flying crews.
Most of the flying will take place in the mountains of the West Country.
Canadian Forces Search and Rescue technicians and U.S. para-rescue jumpers will do parachute drops, likely in the Rocky Mountain House area, in the second phase. The rescue training will allow them to practise jumping into confined areas, assessing and stabilizing casualties and evacuating them so they can be treated in hospital.
The U.S. 39th Rescue Squadron is sister squadron to the 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron and the two have trained together. In Canada, the U.S. contingent gets a taste of mountain rescues and in Florida, the Canadians practise marine rescues.
“They are actually the search and rescue squadron that is assigned to Cape Canaveral,” Noel said of the U.S. contingent, who are expected to bring their own Hercules. “They are on search and rescue standby for when the space shuttle goes and launches.”
435 Squadron has a Hercules permanently equipped to respond to emergencies and ready to respond in as little as 30 minutes and, at most, two hours. It covers an area from Quebec City to the B.C. border and as far north as the North Pole.
Last July, the squadron sent two Hercules as part of a massive search effort for a U.S. pilot who went missing in the Northwest Territories. The pilot’s body was found in the wreckage of his single-engine plane about five days later about 130 km from Norman Wells.
The Canadian Forces is involved in about 8,000 search and rescue missions a year. About 1,100 involve using planes or boats.
Civil Air Search and Rescue Associations from Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta will also be involved and are expected to send a dozen or more planes to participate. The volunteers fly their own small planes and are trained in flying search grids. About 2,600 pilots and 375 planes are part of the association in Canada.
Local police, fire departments and search and rescue volunteers are also involved in the exercise so that they know how the military search and rescue units operate and what they require if a major operation is needed.