Digest>Archives> May 2002

Canadian Coast Guard Helicopters

By Eric W. Manchester


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Sikorsky S-61 (stretched version of Sea King ...

The hum of machinery-in-waiting changes pitch. Subtly, it becomes a deep-toned, rhythmical whine. Faster revolutions of turbines elevate the sound through the next octave and begin rotating long blades overhead. The whine becomes painfully insistent. When the spinning blades resonate readiness, the red and white craft impatiently rocks in place.

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Returning from vacation to their home at Pachena ...

As the occupants reassuringly adjust their flotation vests and seatbelts, the yellow-helmeted pilot grasps the flight controls. The whirling blades’ whooshes change to their characteristic thwack, thwack, thwack, and with a dip of its nose the machine heaves skyward. So begins another hectic day for a Canadian Coast Guard helicopter.

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Approaching Pachena Point lightstation.

The Coast Guard operates helicopters on Canada’s west coast from bases created in the 1970’s at Prince Rupert and Victoria, British Columbia. The fleet consists of four Eurocopter B0105’s, a Bell 212, and a Sikorsky S-61. Their operating area includes the entire Canadian west coast and western Arctic.

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Bell 212 departs Trial Island with cement bucket, ...

Coast Guard helicopters are a collaboration of government agencies. The machines are owned by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, of which the Coast Guard is a division. The pilots and engineers who fly and maintain the craft are provided by Transport Canada’s Aircraft Services branch.

“Our primary duties,” says the unit’s leader Glenn Diachuk, “Include resupply and maintenance of lightstations and mountain-top repeater stations; ice-breaker reconnaissance; surveillance and cleanup in support of pollution programs; fisheries conservation and enforcement”. Although principally land based, one of the Eurocopters operates from the deck of CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier during certain remote resupply missions and Arctic expeditions. “Search and rescue is a secondary role,” says Diachuk, “Military aircraft are the chief SAR responders.” Nevertheless, the unit averages about 30 such missions per year.

The unit’s helicopters are busy. Scheduling is a complex exercise in maximizing payloads for every flight. The fleet is airborne for some 3,000 hours per year, flying nearly 2,400 missions, hauling 5,300 people and delivering more than four million pounds of cargo. The unit’s engineers diligently maintain a mature fleet with an exemplary safety record. “We’ve had no mishaps or casualties”, says Diachuk.

The unit’s Bell helicopter, built in 1974, has twin turbine engines and can lift more than a one-ton payload, either inside or slung underneath. Seating is configured for five passengers plus two crew. The machine cruises at around 100 knots, and is equipped with emergency flotation bladders. The military version is famously known as the Twin Huey.

The small Eurocopters, built in the 1980’s, are powered by twin turbine engines. They can lift nearly a ton, under-slung or inside. Cruising speed is around 120 knots, carrying four passengers plus pilot.

The big, 1970’s vintage Sikorsky cruises at 120 knots, powered by twin turbine engines which develop a total of 2,500hp. This amphibious workhorse carries a 2-ton onboard payload, or slings three tons underneath. The craft usually carries three crew and 24 passengers.

Most flights - about 40% - support lightstations, their staffs and other aids to navigation around our coast and in the Arctic. Nearly one-third of missions are for lightstation rejuvenation. More than a quarter of flights undertake administrative tasks and tests. About two percent of missions respond to lightkeepers’ medical emergencies.

The lightstation rejuvenation program necessitates hauling a lot of building supplies and maintenance crews. Recently, the Bell 212 acted as a flying cement truck. “I slung 20,000lbs of cement by bucket”, says pilot Stan Ulrichsen, “For repairs at Trial Island near Victoria.” In many instances, a great deal of construction material is carried to lightstations because crews are prohibited from using naturally-occurring substances at the site, to satisfy environmental concerns.

On another morning, the Bell 212 flew a round-trip from Victoria to accomplish many tasks. During momentary stops with rotors whirling, people scrambled aboard the machine and countless sacks of mail were handled. Greetings were hurriedly exchanged through the turbines’ roar, until the helipad again fell away beneath the skids as the craft sped to its next destination. The route along the edge of Juan de Fuca Strait is scenic. “We often see bears, whales and hikers,” says pilot Simon Lebel.

Precious cargo that day included Peter and Sheila Redhead, with their children Emily and Thomas - luggage and treasures too - flying home to Pachena Point Lightstation, on the wild Pacific Ocean side of Vancouver Island. “We had two weeks’ vacation,” says Sheila, “Which included the children’s music recitals.”

A mid-flight diversion to Bamfield Lifeboat Station, where Barkley Sound absorbs Pacific swells, took on equipment outbound for maintenance, then it was on to Cape Beale Lightstation, facing Pacific’s fury, with another returning lightkeeper. “I had 17 days in the big city,” says Ivan Dubinsky, “My last vacation away was eight months ago.” General cargo was then delivered to Carmanah Point Lightstation, where Juan de Fuca Strait meets the Pacific Ocean, before returning to base with a load of outgoing mail and homeward-bound relief lightkeepers.

There is little glamour in the day-to-day work of this Coast Guard unit, which flies on without much public attention. “The pilots go about their routine work in a quiet manner,” says Diachuk, “And, sometimes they help save a life.”

NOTE: Helicopter pilot usually sits in right-hand seat, as opposed to fixed-wing pilot who sits in left-hand seat. Exception: when helicopter carries load slung underneath, pilot sits in left-hand seat because helicopter has tendency to tilt over to port (heel) due to dynamics of propulsion and lifting systems - so it is easier to observe the under-slung load in flight.

This story appeared in the May 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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