From his bird’s eye view in the cockpit of a Canadian Forces Sea King helicopter, Capt. Dave Campbell peers out his side window at the ground below.
He and co-pilot Capt. Chris Fukushima keep the large, steel bird steady as it hovers five metres above the clearing at CFB Esquimalt’s Albert Head training area in Metchosin. The rotor blades are a blur as they cut through the air, creating a downwash that flattens bushes and tall grasses and causes trees to dance.
The pilots are waiting on Capt. Shane Boyce, who is preparing to be hoisted from the aircraft to the ground below. Once lowered, he works quickly to secure the first of two “stranded” people, and gives the signal for the tandem lift to begin.
“I love doing that,” says Boyce, whose job as tactical co-ordinating officer is planning and directing strategic missions. “It’s not stressful like the anti-submarine warfare training.”
The four-man air crew has several checks and training requirements they need to complete during their two-and-a-half-hour flight, all meant to ensure they and their aircraft are prepared when a call comes into 443 Maritime Helicopter Squadron at Patricia Bay.
Their list today includes “shooting the gap”, that is, flying the Sea King between Oak Bay and Discovery Island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca using radar, rather than sight. They will also use radar to home in on a shipping vessel. Another test has them land the aircraft in a confined clearing to test their ability to land on uneven and rocky ground, as well as near trees.
The Sea King – one of six at the squadron – again heads for water, and a sonar cable is lowered into the ocean. Information is relayed back on board, allowing Boyce to determine if there are submarines nearby.
“I like the fact that when we’re really doing our job, when we’re doing anti-submarine warfare, I have a lot of responsibility,” says Boyce, a Vic West resident who followed generations of men in his family by joining the military.
“There’s so much information coming at you and … you’re creating a tactical picture and you’re employing the aircraft in a way that is most effective in trying to win the fight,” he says.
All four air force members revel in the intensity of the job.
“I think the job attracts people who like the high pressure,” says Fukushima, also a Vic West resident.
Seated together behind the pilots, Boyce and Warrant Officer Jay Krzywonos keep their eyes peeled on several screens that relay data, allowing the aircraft to be the eyes and ears of a Canadian warship, destroyer or supply ship.
Deploying with ships and tracking submarines are the Sea King’s primary roles.
But since the 1960s, the Sikorsky-built chopper has also conducted surveillance, search and rescues and medical evacuations, watched for polluters at sea, and worked with the Coast Guard and RCMP.
“We do it all. We’re the Mack truck of the helicopter world,” says Krzywonos, a Brentwood Bay resident who works as an airborne electronic sensors operator. One of his roles is to identify vessels that operate in the area.
Despite the sturdiness and versatility of the Sea King, it is old. Some of its technology is obsolete, and it spends a lot of time in the shop. For every hour of flight, 30 hours of maintenance are needed.
Nine custom-built Cyclone helicopters, also manufactured by Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., are long-awaited replacements. The Cyclones are touted as the most sophisticated maritime helicopters in the world.
One prototype is now at 12 Wing Shearwater in Nova Scotia – which is also 443 Squadron’s home base – and the rest are expected to begin arriving there in 2012 or 2013. The West Coast is scheduled to begin receiving its new aircraft in 2014.
The Canadian government’s purchase of 28 Cyclones for an estimated $5.7 billion will give the air force and navy an enormous tactical edge, with long-range sonar, 360-degree radar coverage, satellite communications, more time in the air and 10 per cent more speed, for starters.
“The Sea King is getting old. It’s just not up to snuff,” Campbell says, adding that he still feels safe flying the vintage aircraft.
“Obviously they are very old and they do have quirks, but the systems are reliable,” Fukushima says.
For now, the Sea King aircrews are focussed on the job of maximizing their time spent in the air, putting themselves and their aircraft through their paces.
“Everybody’s got a part to play and there’s lots of calls that have to be made at precise times,” Campbell says. “We train the way we fight and fight the way we train.”
Check out video of the flyalong in the video feed at www.vicnews.com.