Nfld. & Labrador

SAR in need of outside help? Cougar Helicopters says it's ready for takeoff

A Senate report said private helicopter companies could help supplement search and rescue operations. Cougar Helicopters Inc. says the company is ready and waiting for takeoff.

A Senate report says Labrador and the Arctic could benefit from Cougar's help

Cougar Helicopters Inc. is interested in supplementing search and rescue operations, particularly in Labrador and the Canadian north. (Cougar Helicopters/Facebook)

A recent Senate report on maritime search and rescue suggests private helicopter companies could help fill in coverage gaps in Newfoundland and Labrador and the Canadian Arctic, and Cougar Helicopters says it's ready for takeoff.

"The men and women that do search and rescue today [do] a wonderful job with the resources and the assets [they] have," said Hank Williams, general manager of Cougar Helicopters Inc. "There's just not enough of it."

When invited to speak to the Senate committee about the report, the company recommended a pilot program in which helicopters from the Cougar fleet would be stationed in what Williams calls "strategic locations," ready to be deployed for SAR efforts in remote locations.

Hank Williams is the general manager of Cougar Helicopters Inc. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

The program would supplement the existing SAR fleet and capabilities, particularly in Newfoundland and Labrador and the Canadian north, he said, and save the Canadian Coast Guard from having to purchase new aircraft in order to fill service gaps.

"So many people [have] the same vision, the same goal, and we just have to find a way to get there," he said.

Each year, an estimated 600 lives are saved and 18 others are lost off the coast of the province — double the national average, with the majority happening on water, according to the Senate's Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans report, titled "When Every Minute Counts: Maritime Search and Rescue."

Increased offshore oil and gas development, a longer fishing season, more fishing vessels out more frequently and a jump in recreational boating were all flagged in the report as evidence of a need for better SAR services in the province.

Cougar Helicopters has a primary search and rescue helicopter and two back-up choppers to support it. (Cougar Helicopters Inc./CBC)

"I was reminded by the ex-premier of Nunavut about how global warming is affecting that area, and there will be more need for search and rescue, and even community evacuations," Williams said.

The government of Newfoundland and Labrador has announced it will conduct its own review of the province's search and rescue services following the release of the Senate report last week.

Thermal sensing and 30,000,000 candlelight-power spotlights

Cougar has a primary Sikorsky 92 search and rescue helicopter and two back-up choppers to support it, said Rick Banks, search and rescue program manager with the company.

The chopper is equipped with a hoist, and a thermal-imaging camera to help locate people in the water or on land. It can transport two pilots, a hoist operator and two rescue specialists. 

In the event of a medevac, he said, there is the potential to bring a doctor and nurse along as well.

Rick Banks is Cougar's search and rescue program manager. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

The craft also has a so-called night sun, a "30,000,000 candlelight-power" searchlight, he said.

"It's very bright."

He said Cougar holds itself to a 20-minute wheels-up time from the moment they get the call for help.

"However we train all the time, we have drills all the time, no notice, and our average time now is about 13, 14 minutes on a launch," said Banks.

"We feel that such an operation ... could be very easily set up in places up north and Labrador," said Williams. "To take an operation like this and translate up into the Arctic somewhere would not be a difficult task."

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