COVER

Maintaining a watch on the North

ANDREW NIKIFORUK August 19 1985
COVER

Maintaining a watch on the North

ANDREW NIKIFORUK August 19 1985

Maintaining a watch on the North

The green-and-yellow business cards carried by the crew read: “Have Sub Problem? Contact Crew Six, VP 407 Squadron.” The squadron’s shoulder patch is more direct, depicting a red trident piercing a black submarine. The 12 Canadian airmen fly a plane that many aviation experts call “the Cadillac of antisubmarine aircraft” —one of Canada’s 18 Lockheed Auroras, a four-engine turboprop plane built in the United States as the Orion and equipped with state-of-the-art electronic sensors and torpedoes. Assigned to the Canadian Armed Forces base in Comox, B.C., Crew Six usually patrols Canada’s West Coast on armed training flights or for surveillance of vessels in Canadian waters. But last week the crew flew to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories to carry out a different kind of mission. Their quarry was the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea on its voyage through the Northwest Passage. Explained Maj. Denny Thomas, 47, one of the plane’s pilots: “Our whole mission is to remind everybody, including our own people, that the Arctic is part of Canada.”

Priority: The flight was originally scheduled four months ago as just one of at least 16 Northern PATROLS-NORPAT in Armed Forces’ jargon—that are carried out each year as part of Ottawa’s assertion of Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. But the passage of the U.S. icebreaker through Canadian waters made surveillance of the vessel the main priority on this flight. “It’s unusual for ships to make visits in Canadian waters where there are ice concentrations,” noted Thomas, adding that “it would be nice from a Canadian viewpoint” if the foreign icebreaker turned out to be in need of assistance.

Even though its mission was distinctly political, the Aurora’s nine-hour flight began routinely. As is usually the case in the Arctic, the Aurora—which has a seven-seat tactical navigation centre and antisubmarine warfare compartment—did not carry its eight computer-guided torpedoes. That is because there are no facilities for such weapons in the North, and the arctic climate makes the performance of the cold-sensitive torpedoes unpredictable. Armed only with a wide-angle camera mounted in its belly, the Aurora climbed above Inuvik at 9:15 a.m. and flew north over the Mackenzie River delta, a stark landscape dotted with lakes and rivers the

color of blueberries. Over the Beaufort Sea the plane spotted the Camsell, a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker that was sailing through pack ice, escorting two tugs towing barges loaded with supplies for the arctic communities in the area.

Passing over Sachs Harbor, a community of 101 Inuvialuit on the southern shore of Banks Island, the Aurora photographed a smouldering garbage dump and the community’s tiny airfield as part of a regular survey to help federal authorities monitor soil erosion and other environmental changes in the re-

gion’s delicate environment.

The flight’s primary observation target—the Polar Sea—proved more elusive. Flying around the southeast corner of Banks Island and up the Prince of Wales Strait, the crew began to map out ice conditions and, as fog made visual contact increasingly difficult, to search

by radar for the U.S. icebreaker. Then, three hours after leaving Inuvik, the Aurora located the Polar Sea under a dense fog bank at the northward mouth of the strait.

Zigzagging: With radio contact established, the Polar Sea’s radio operator told the plane’s crew that the ship had zero visibility and was zigzagging around the ice floe at a speed of only four knots an hour. “We are working like mad to get down the strait,” he said, and welcomed the Aurora’s ice report: open water halfway down the strait. Aboard the plane the members of Crew Six prepared sandwiches in the Aurora’s galley for lunch and crowded into the cockpit to catch a glimpse of the icebergs and beluga whales below. Declared Lyndon Kroker, the plane’s 21-year-old first officer, who comes from Bruderheim, Alta.: “It’s kind of hard to believe how much North there really is up here.” Even though the crew had not managed to see the Polar Sea directly, Thomas felt that their mission had been fulfilled. “We take pride in the fact that we were here last month,” said Thomas, “and will be here the next.”

ANDREW NIKIFORUK