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Arctic Sovereignty  –  Search & Rescue  –  First Air Flight 6560  –  Aug 2011

Arctic Search-and-Rescue:  First Air Crash at Resolute Bay was within Sight of CF SAR Personnel preparing for a 'Major Air Disaster' Exercise
The tragic crash of  First Air's  Flight 6560 has naturally focused attention on search-and-rescue in Canada's high arctic. Bizarrely, Canadian Forces SAR personnel were already at Resolute Bay when the Boeing B737 slammed into a nearby hillside.  The CF were positioning equipment and people to prepare for a Major Air Disaster exercise outside Resolute scheduled for 22 Aug 2011. In the aftermath of the deadly accident, the planned 'MAJAID' exercise has now been cancelled.

It's hard to imagine a better-prepared remote airport. When communications were lost with that inbound Boeing 737-210C, military emergency vehicles were pre-positioned at the runway. When Flight 6560 hit the ground, a MAJAID exercise turned into the real thing. CF aerial SAR was available instantly - in the form of a single CH-124 Sea King and  two  CH-146 Griffons. [1]  Before ambulance crews were on-site, the three survivors of Flight 6560 had already been air-evacuated. All of  this within minutes of  impact.

The Minister of National Defence made a statement saying: CF personnel "including 15 medical personnel, with two Griffon helicopters and one Sea King helicopter, were first on the scene, extinguishing fires along with Resolute Airport firefighters, and searching for and providing aid to the passengers and crew of  the downed 737. The survivors were later transported  to Iqaluit by a Canadian Forces C-17 Globemaster." Peter MacKay went on to say "The Canadian Forces are always ready to respond whenever Canadians are in need." But that's already being queried.

The outcome of  this horrible accident could have been much worse had  trained CF personnel not been on site. And  that was the point made by the media. Had the CF not been preparing for the MAJAID exercise, they wouldn't have been anywhere near Resolute. Instead of a response time measured in critical minutes, it would have taken half a day to transit any Canadian Forces' SAR helicopter from their bases in the far south. Unfortunately, with trauma injuries, seconds count, let alone minutes. Hours waiting is too awful to contemplate.

The take-home is clear. Only pre-positioning of  CF  SAR assets in the North can avoid lengthy delays in response times. The status quo of  basing aircraft in the South is putting lives at  risk.

Who is Subsidizing Whom? – Civil Aviation in the Absense of Other Northern Infrastructure

Recent comments posted in the popular press demonstrate both an obnoxious attitude towards Northern citizens and an astonishing lack of  basic knowledge about the realities of  life outside of Canada's major cities. A few corrections for the ill-informed. Unlike well-serviced residents of Canada's South, Northerns travelling to distant destinations have few options but  travel by air. There's no equivalent to Hwy 101 so forget driving by car or bus. There's no ferries and any trip by sea would take weeks anyway. So, off  to the 'airport'  (usually a wind-swept strip of gravel ).

That gravel airstrip is significant when airliner makers like Boeing no longer offer 'gravel kits' for newer types. [2] It also explains in part why Northern airlines are flying 35-year old aircraft when their Southern competitors are able to operate newer, more fuel-efficient types. Comments about subsidies sprang from attempts to explain the small number of  passengers onboard  Flight 6560. The answer is quite simple: First Air's B737-210C is a Combi aircraft meaning that its interior can be reconfigured for freight loads as well as passengers. Like people, Northern freight shipments have few options besides airliners. Flight 6560 was configured for six pallets/12 passengers. [3]

If  Northern airlines were heavily subsidised as some suggest, it would be hard to explain airfare prices. The survivors of Flight 6560 were transferred to hospital in Ottawa. Visiting relatives can expect to pay $3600 for the 3680 km Resolute Bay/Iqaluit/Ottawa return flight. Compare this with an equivalent Southern air fare. Ottawa/Victoria (3592 km) return is around $600 (a seat-sale can drop that to $470). Price difference between the two routes is partly explained by passenger and freight volumes. But that Resolute/Ottawa flight still cost six times more. That's business, right? But does Canada want to be in the business of being an Arctic nation. If so, Ottawa must either make Northern travel and shipments more affordable or come up with infrastructure alternatives.

[1] Also present were a CC-138 Twin Otter from 440 Sqn, Yellowknife, and a CC-130H Hercules.

[2] Current-production Boeing 737NGs and Airbus A320s are not fitted with gravel runway gear. The 1970s-vintage 737-200 could be fitted with nosegear gravel deflectors and bleed-air nozzles protrude from the lower front of each engine cowling –  both are visible in the sideview (above).

[3] Update: Some sources now say that Flight 6560 was actually in pallet/24pax configuration.

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