Heroic nightime icy Arctic sea search and rescue mission awarded with trophy for Helicopter Rescue

The Canadian Forces Search and Rescue team was selected as the winner of the AgustaWestland‘s 2012 Cormorant Trophy for Helicopter Rescue.

The trophy was awarded for  a dramatic long range complex rescue mission which took place on Oct. 27, 2011, when the crew of AW101 Cormorant “Rescue 915” from the 103 SAR Squadron, from Canadian Force Base Gander, Newfoundland, were tasked with rescuing two walrus hunters stranded on an ice flow in the Arctic sea near Igloolik, Nunavut.

The crew of the SAR helo were made by Captain Aaron Noble (aircraft commander), Captain Dean Vey (co-pilot), Sergeant Brad Hiscock (flight engineer), Sergeant Daniel Villeneuve (SAR Tech team lead), Master Corporal Shawn Bretschneider (SAR Tech team member).

The mission had to cover a distance of 2,780 km. In the shortest time and with the fewest stops. With no crew replacement and three very short fuel stops.

After about 12 hours of flying with night setting in, Rescue 915 was radioed, not only that the conditions of the hunters had worsened, but also that there was more trouble in the icy water: three SAR Techs from 424 Squadron at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, Ontario, had parachuted into the water from a CC-130 Hercules and two Personal Locator Beacons had been activated.

The on scene weather conditions were at least challenging with 90 km/h wind gusts, 10-metre-high waves “tossing masses of ice into the air, with life rafts, people and strobe lights in multiple locations.”

Here’s what happened next:

“With Hiscock manning the hoist, Villeneuve and Bretschneider were lowered to the icy water where they fought waves, dodged ice and freezing sea spray. They swam to the first life raft, dragging the hoist hook, line and rescue ‘Horse” collar, where they were constantly submerged as they all worked together to get the two hunters and one of the 424 Sqn SAR Techs into the AW101 helicopter. Villeneuve started to tend to the hunters and SAR Tech who were suffering from exposure and exhaustion. The crew repositioned over a second life raft and Hiscock again lowered Bretschneider into the sea to recover a second 424 Sqn SAR Tech.”

Unfortunately, Sergeant Janick Gilbert, who had earlier jumped from the CC-130, did not make it.

“After a short search, the unresponsive body of Gilbert was spotted floating in the ice and waves and Bretschneider was again lowered into the icy sea. At some point while trying to attach Gilbert to the rescue line, Bretschneider was struck on the head by the heavy hoist hook. Dazed, he still managed to hook himself and Gilbert’s body to the hoist and they were brought up. By the time they got to the aircraft door, Bretschneider had deteriorated and Hiscock had to struggle with both men on the line until Villeneuve, and Master Corporals Marco Journeyman and Maxime Lahaye-Lemay – the two rescued 424 Squadron SAR Techs who had recovered sufficiently – were able to help get them inside.”

Despite the tragic loss of a life, after more than 18 hours after the mission had started, Rescue 915 finally headed to Igloolik for futher medical support to all those involved.

Image credit: AgustaWestland

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.