Edmonton

Edmonton's 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron celebrates 75th year after helping with Fort McMurray

Looking down at Fort McMurray burning from the green Griffon helicopter brought back haunting memories for one pilot who has served in some of the world’s most conflict-ridden countries.

'To be honest with you, it conjured up images of Bosnia and the burnt out places I saw in Bosnia'

Capt. Jeff Cliff was a commander of 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron's reconnaissance mission in Fort McMurray during the wildfire last month. He said hovering over the burning town reminded him of looking down at a war zone. (CBC/Emilio Avalos)

Looking down at Fort McMurray burning from a green Griffon helicopter brought back haunting memories for one pilot who has served in some of the world's most conflict-ridden countries.

"To be honest with you, it conjured up images of Bosnia and the burnt out places I saw in Bosnia," Capt. Jeff Cliff said. "I made comments to my co-pilots several times, 'It looks like a war zone here.' "

Cliff was the commander of the 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron reconnaissance mission to support firefighters battling the beast of a wildfire that swept through Fort McMurray last month.

Yes, you're seeing nasty things, but these nasty things, you're helping to alleviate a little bit so it makes you feel good.- Capt. Jeff Cliff

Flying over the town later, he said it was a relief to see that about 85 per cent remained intact — but there was still that 15 per cent that wasn't.

Part of his job included taking people from the emergency response centre up to survey the damage, including one woman who had lived in a home that was totally decimated.

"We went right to her house — well the remains of her house — and hovered over it and she was able to see firsthand what it was like," Cliff said. "It was tough on her, obviously, but it was still nice because she got a little bit of closure and she'd probably heard about it and hadn't seen it."

408 Squadron is part of 1 Wing, the branch of the Royal Canadian Air Force that supports the army.

Sunday, during a ceremony celebrating the 75th anniversary, 408 Squadron took over high readiness. That means if anything happens anywhere in the world that requires 1 Wing, its helicopters and pilots will be first out the door.

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces line up during a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the 480 Squadron Sunday at the Edmonton Garrison. (CBC/Emilio Avalos)

For them, it's nothing new, said Lt.-Col. Trevor Teller, commanding officer of 408 Squadron.

"At some point, there is something coming," Teller said. "The last three years have really been the longest time in the last 45 years of this squadron's history we haven't gone and done something."

Pilots and helicopters ready

In 2013, the squadron was in the Philippines assisting in the aftermath of a deadly typhoon. In 2010, it was in Haiti following the massive earthquake.

Col. Scott Clancy, the commander of 1 Wing, commanded pieces of the 408 Squadron in Haiti when he was the air component commander there.

"It has a very proud history of being quick into the fight," Clancy said. "Lt.-Col. Teller has my entire confidence that at a moment's notice, I can have these men and women in harm's way because they have trained up to that standard."

Cliff said as a member of 408 Squadron, he's always ready to go.

When he heard about the wildfire in Fort McMurray, he packed his rucksack immediately.

Within two days, he was almost in the heart of the flames, where he spent a week with his colleagues.

In Fort McMurray, some of the most important work happened at night, when a pilot used an infrared camera to track the edge of the blaze.

"He flew the entire periphery of the fire and he actually plotted it on an iPad, believe it or not, and then took that image and was able to send it back, email it, and it was getting briefed every morning at the emergency response centre in Fort Mac," Cliff said.

Although his job can be taxing —  he has seen horrors around the world that he will never be able to forget — it's those positive contributions that make it worthwhile.

Helicopters are unique in the air force because they can do things that fixed-wing aircraft can't.

"We can go in and we can pull people out of a small little confined area," Cliff said. "We can put people in and give them supplies in the smallest of areas.

"Yes, you're seeing nasty things, but these nasty things, you're helping to alleviate a little bit so it makes you feel good."

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