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Anatomy of an airborne wilderness river rescue: ‘It took every machine’

By Dan Parsons | May 1, 2020

Estimated reading time 12 minutes, 38 seconds.

A routine proficiency flight for two Alberta-based rescue pilots on April 28 turned into an eight-hour ordeal involving at least four helicopters when they were called to pluck two men from a swollen Athabasca River.

Located in northeastern Alberta, Fort McMurray is a hub for the region’s oil-and-gas industry and an outpost of civilization in an otherwise rugged, remote wilderness. With the onset of spring, river ice on the Athabasca and other waterways in the area is breaking up, causing flooding the likes of which has not been seen in at least half a century.

The Phoenix HeliFlight AS350 B2 piloted by Cameron Spring lands in the front yard of a remote cabin cut off by a rising Athabasca River. Cameron Spring Photo

“It’s a huge flood. I’ve been here since the early ’80s and this is the largest flood on record where the river came up over 20 feet in a matter of about a half a day,” said Paul Spring, owner of Phoenix HeliFlight and founder of the Local Helicopter Emergency Response Organization (HERO).

It was in those conditions April 28 that an EC135, callsign HERO 1, was flying a routine proficiency mission when a call came from the local fire department asking for help locating a First Nations family at a remote cabin on the bank of the Athabasca River. Two men trying to resupply the cabin by four wheeler had been swept away by rising water and lost downriver among the ice floes.

Ken Dueck was at the stick when the call came in about 2 p.m. He and co-pilot Marc McGee abandoned their training run and headed north to search but without a fix on where the lost men might be.

“We didn’t know how far downstream, but they gave us a rough idea, so we headed that way,” Dueck told Vertical. “We did our best to locate the individual by cell phone.”

They began searching an area north of Fort McKay, which itself is about 58 kilometers (36 miles) north of Fort McMurray. McGee got the victim’s cell phone number from the fire department and was able to reach him from the cockpit.

“However, his cell phone battery was down to three percent, so he gave me a general idea where he was but said he wasn’t very familiar with the area,” McGee said.

Fortunately, a nearby family member ashore was familiar with local geography and was able to talk the helicopter into the location, about 40 km (25 miles) from the initial “guesstimate,” McGee said.

“From there, we found that party and then I was able to contact the stranded individual again by cell and he was able, once he had visual sight of us, was able to guide us to his location,” he said.

An aerial shot of the scene shows how difficult the stranded victims are to see among murky floodwaters and tall trees. Cameron Spring Photo

It was a daunting spot for the helicopter and crew. Not only were huge chunks of ice flowing downriver, the watercourse was surrounded by 80-foot (25-meter) poplar trees, partially submerged in the flood. To make matters worse, the people needing rescue were wearing camouflage, McGee said. The man was waving a red hat to make himself more visible to the aircraft.

“The location was not quite next to the river but in a marsh area that had been flooded out, with very tall poplars, another kind-of creek area that was flooded out as well and he was perched on a log,” McGee said. “It took us a couple of tries to actually see him in place and then Ken was able to identify him.”

McGee dropped a GPS pin on the helicopter’s Foreflight to mark the location of the rescue because the EC135 was not able to get down to recover the folks in distress. The helicopter also was running low on fuel by this time. Their primary mission of locating the stranded people complete, the crew flew back to the Local Hero Foundation base in Fort McMurray where they could refuel and relay the coordinates to other units that could respond.

That’s when Cameron Spring, Paul’s son and a pilot at Phoenix HeliFlight, was called in. The company operates a fleet of single- and twin-engine Airbus helicopters. With just about 400 hours in the cockpit, this was Cameron Spring’s first real-world rescue.

The younger Spring hopped into an AS350 B2 AStar, flew to downtown Fort McMurray where he picked up two search-and-rescue (SAR) personnel outfitted with immersion suits, and then headed north to the coordinates he received from McGee and Dueck.

“It took us a little while to, essentially, find them again because we didn’t have good radio communications after the other helicopter left, but we eventually did locate him,” Spring said. “I hovered down low and looked for a spot where I could let the two SAR guys down . . . but there wasn’t anything solid for the helicopter to land on.”

Instead of landing near the stranded duo, Spring was able to land and make contact with family members on the shore nearby. The two people were swept away by rising water while trying to drive four-wheelers loaded with supplies to a nearby cabin where the family was planning to ride out the river’s breakup, they learned.

“We talked to the family and decided I was going to drop the SAR guys on an ice floe in the channel next to them,” Spring said. “At this point, I didn’t realize there were actually two individuals. One of them was laying in the water, unable to pull himself out onto the ice because he was injured. They were both, again, wearing camo, which was terrible.”

The view from the cockpit of the AS350 B2 as it touches down under half power on an ice floe in the Athabasca River north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Cameron Spring Photo

While the rescue swimmers crawled and waded over to the two stranded men, the helicopter flew a few miles downstream to the cabin, where there was “already a couple of feet of water at the front door” to rescue the two women, two children and a pair of dogs.

“I was able to land in the front yard with just enough clearance,” Spring said. “I shut down and was able to load up all four people, their two dogs and some baggage.”

The family and their pets were safely transported to the staging area where the various emergency services organizations had parked their trucks and other equipment.

By that time, a Bell 412 Griffon helicopter with a winch was inbound from a practice range near Cold Lake frequented by Canadian and NATO fighter jets. Griffon SAR crews are posted there when the range is active, in the event a jet goes down.

“The fire department, knowing this was a water rescue maybe needing a winch, had already requested support from the military,” Paul Spring said. “The Griffon, because it was on standby for any air crash in the zone, was able to lift off pretty quickly. It was en route, but it’s at least an hour-and-a-half just to get to town and then another half an hour to get to scene, so they’d be two hours into their fuel by the time they arrived at the subjects that were needing rescue.”

Meanwhile, the younger Spring was refueled and flying back to the rescue scene with two immersion-suit-clad fire department personnel on board the AStar. He deposited the pair on another ice chunk near the stranded men and their first round of rescuers.

This time, he set the helicopter down on a large chunk of ice, maintaining about 50 percent power, putting just about 500 pounds on the skids, and waited for the Griffon to arrive. The aircraft also served as a large spinning marker for the inbound 412. Once the military chopper was on scene and started hoisting the victims from the river, Spring returned to the staging area for more fuel.

“We knew that the B2, from staying on scene so long, was near the end of its fuel cycle and was still needed, so we determined we should probably take some fuel up,” Paul Spring said.

The elder Spring loaded 600 pounds of jet fuel in 10-gallon steel kegs into the squirrel cheek compartments of an EC130 and flew up to refuel the AS350 B2 before taking command of the aviation operation on scene. By this time, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the local fire department, HERO, Phoenix HeliFlight and others were all now involved.

“The fish and wildlife officers and police officers, they don’t have the radio equipment to interface with the helicopters,” he said. “Between the B2 and the paramedics and my handheld FM radio, we managed to keep ground to air communications going.”

The Canadian military Bell 412 Griffon search-and-rescue helicopter positions to begin hoisting the stranded victims from the Athabasca River. Cameron Spring Photo

The military Bell 412 was able to hoist one of the stranded victims, in so-called “code yellow,” from the water and onto the helicopter. His friend was “code red,” meaning critical condition, but could not be immediately placed into a rescue harness. Needing fuel, the 412 headed to a nearby oil company-owned airport for fuel and to transfer the patient to a ground ambulance before returning for the other patient.

“They were having trouble getting the red patient secured for a lift,” Paul Spring said. “You can imagine, everyone is in the water and can’t touch the bottom, so they’re all floating in amongst 80-foot trees . . . bobbing around trying to secure and wrestle a very large gentleman into a harness and then get him in the basket to get him up.”

The patient was brought to the staging area where the HERO 1 EC135, which had changed crew, was on standby. What would have been an hour-long drive to Fort McMurray down a gravel logging road took the helicopter 25 minutes. The more seriously injured patient later died at the hospital.

After refueling, the Griffon flew back to the scene to recover the four rescuers still in the water. They were safely returned to the staging area before the party broke up and everyone involved returned to their respective bases.

More than seven hours had elapsed since HERO 1 first received the call at around 2 p.m.

“It was a 50-percent success rate on that one, but they would have had zero chance of living if HERO hadn’t found them and the B2 hadn’t been able to set the swimmers in and get them going into scene,” Paul Spring said. “It would have been a whole different story. It really took every machine there doing its part, from the Griffon, to the spotter, to the transport and even the fuel chopper.”

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