Nfld. & Labrador

Former Gander pilot gets international award for search and rescue efforts

A Canadian search and rescue pilot received international recognition in London, England last night for work he did last winter while he was based in Gander.

Major Jean Leroux completed 7 SAR missions in 8 days

'All about teamwork': Search and rescue pilot receives award for Gander work


4 years agoVideo
A search and rescue pilot has received international recognition for the work he performed while stationed in Gander. Major Jean Leroux received the Master's Commendation from the Honourable Company of Air Pilots on Thursday night. 1:14

A Canadian Search and Rescue pilot received international recognition in London, England Thursday night for work he did last winter while he was based in Gander.

Major Jean Leroux received the Master's Commendation from The Honourable Company of Air Pilots, a United Kingdom-based group with a goal of ensuring that aircraft are piloted by people who are "highly competent, self-reliant, dependable and respected."

"I'm here and I'm representing the top of the pyramid," Leroux told CBC News during an interview in London following the ceremony. 

"Obviously, the pyramid is a lot of the maintainers, the people, the logistics — it's all about the teamwork, the team effort, the team concept. Representing the whole SAR community is pretty good."

Leroux, who is now posted in Toronto, was commander of the 103 Search and Rescue Squadron in Gander for three years. He also flew SAR missions when needed.

"As a commanding officer it's really not my primary job to fly, but I'm a pilot at heart so I do like to fly," he said. "The deal I had with my guys was like, schedule me once a week but, if you get sick or injured or whatever, you call me first."
Capt. Pete Wright (left) and Maj. Jean Leroux from 103 Squadron fly a Cormorant helicopter over Iceland during the training mission in early February 2016. (Master Cpl. Johanie Maheu/RCAF)

He said illness and training commitments among the squadron's pilots in late February meant he was on standby for an 11-day stretch, at one point doing seven missions in just eight days.

In that time, the Honourable Company of Air Pilots credits him with saving multiple lives.

From the Arctic to the Atlantic

On Feb. 22, he helped save people from a sinking boat in the Arctic and two snowmobile accident victims in Quebec.

Two days later, he flew more than 500 kilometres in a raging storm to airlift a Spanish fisherman who had a heart attack to hospital in St. John's.

What you see here is not a superhero. It's an ordinary guy with extraordinary training.- Major Jean Leroux

Two days after that, he airlifted a severely injured man to hospital from a remote community in Quebec, an evacuation that provincial emergency services and another SAR squadron aborted due to severe weather.

"This award ... it is obviously bigger than myself. What you see here is not a superhero," he said. "It's not somebody with special [abilities]. It's an ordinary guy with extraordinary training."

"The Canadian Forces have given me the tools to get to that level. We can take somebody 18 years old and he can become me very easily. I'm not a special person by any means."
A 103 Search and Rescue technician is hoisted down from a Cormorant helicopter during a mock mountain rescue in Iceland in early February 2016. (Master Cpl Johanie Maheu/RCAF)

His former commanding officer in Gander may not agree with that assessment. Lt.-Col. Pierre Haché says Leroux stands above the rest.

"Major Leroux is probably one of, if not the most, experienced search and rescue pilots that we have in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and I would say he is probably one of the best search and rescue pilots in the world."

Weather on steroids

Leroux believes Canada represents one of the toughest environments in the world to work in search and rescue. It's even more challenging when your coverage area includes the North Atlantic

He says it's like weather on steroids.

I don't get deployed overseas, but I see the results every day of our actions.- Major Jean Leroux

"The wind is always intense, the fog — the weather element is what makes the Eastern Seaboard such a difficult place to operate."

"I'm a Search and Rescue pilot. I don't get deployed overseas, but I see the results every day of our actions. We go out there and pick up people. It's usually a Canadian in trouble somewhere and those people have family back home. So the work we do affects the lives of people in Canada directly."

Leroux said he saw lots of that gratitude on display during his time working in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"Everytime we land for fuel, just for training, in a little place, a little harbour, there's always somebody who comes to see us and shake our hands. 'Thank you very much, you saved my brother five years ago or my cousin.' They get what we're doing."

Leroux said strong leadership and trust in the people you work with is what makes a successful search and rescue team.

Great equipment also helps.

"The Canadian government gives us tremendous equipment to work with in the CH-149, the Cormorant helicopter. I have been flying this machine for 3,000 hours and [I] trust that I can push this machine to the limit and I've never been disappointed."

Leroux said conducting search and rescue operations in a country like Canada is difficult and dangerous, but it's a role the Royal Canadian Air Force has embraced.

With files from Thomas Daigle in London