Air power at sea: A force multiplier during Operation RENAISSANCE IRMA MARIA

A CH-124 Sea King helicopter air lifts one of several crates filled with clean water to the island of Dominica  during Operation RENAISSANCE IRMA, a relief mission in the Caribbean following the destruction of Hurricane Maria, on September 27, 2017. Photo by: MCpl Chris Ringius, Formation Imaging Services Halifax

A CH-124 Sea King helicopter air lifts one of several crates filled with clean water to the island of Dominica during Operation RENAISSANCE IRMA, a relief mission in the Caribbean following the destruction of Hurricane Maria, on September 27, 2017. Photo by: MCpl Chris Ringius, Formation Imaging Services Halifax

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By Captain Matt Zalot, Operation RENAISSANCE IRMA MARIA Public Affairs Officer

First tasked to South Caicos and then to Dominica, Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) St. John’s was one of the assets deployed by the Government of Canada to help those affected by the 2017 hurricane season. The frigate provided the transportation, accommodation and command and control system for the sailors involved in the day-to-day disaster relief efforts on shore. The addition of the CH-124 Sea King helicopter from 12 Wing Shearwater increased the ship’s agility and enabled her to help out that much more.

“The main thing is that we’ve been able to sling large amounts of water and supplies to shore,” said Captain Matthew Barkhouse, a 12 Wing Standards pilot, from Shearwater, Nova Scotia. “If we need to, we can fly up to 12 hours continuously before maintenance is required.”

In many cases, the use of air assets allows water or food to reach people that have seen their transportation networks severely curtailed, whether by roads being washed out or simply by debris blocking the way. “The bladder we carry contains over 1200 litres of water, and we’re able to distribute that water throughout the island,” Captain Barkhouse said.

Natural disasters can occur with little warning, so preparing the Sea King helicopter air detachment to embark in HMCS St. John’s required a significant amount of effort in a very limited amount of time. To achieve readiness, the qualifications met (or air workups) involved “deck landings, slinging, hoisting, using the Stoke’s litter and helicopter in-flight refueling,” explained Captain Barkhouse.

Achieving these benchmarks meant a daunting schedule. “Our readiness training involved a fairly intense, very quick set of air workups immediately after leaving Halifax,” said Captain Barkhouse. “But, so far, this has been the highlight of my career.”

Once in the Caribbean, the tempo continued unabated. The air detachment captain credits the aircraft maintainers for the role that they played, as “there’s a whole team on board the ship that keeps us flying.”

The tasks required of the pilots were also technically demanding, as landing a helicopter on a ship is a very challenging feat. “We’re also carrying lots of weight in challenging environmental conditions, which requires a lot of torque, so you have to be very careful when departing and approaching the ship,” said Captain Barkhouse.

HMCS St. John’s and its Sea King detachment completed its mission on September 30, 2017.

Operation RENAISSANCE IRMA is delivering a rapid Canadian Armed Forces response that is flexible enough to make an immediate positive impact on the ground, and to continue helping people as the situation develops.

Image gallery

  • A work party and a CH-124 Sea King helicopter from Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship St. John’s arrive on the island of Dominica during Operation RENAISSANCE IRMA, a relief mission in the Caribbean following the destruction of Hurricane Maria, on September 27, 2017. Photo by: MCpl Chris Ringius, Formation Imaging Services Halifax
  • The Deck Department on Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship St. John’s aids the CH-124 Sea King helicopter in preparing to air lift supplies of food and water to the island of Dominica during Operation RENAISSANCE IRMA, a humanitarian aid mission in the Caribbean, on September 26, 2017. Photo by: MCpl Chris Ringius, Formation Imaging Services Halifax
  • The Deck Department on Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship St. John’s aids the CH-124 Sea King helicopter prepares to air lift supplies of food and water to the island of Dominica during Operation RENAISSANCE IRMA, a humanitarian aid mission in the Caribbean, on September 26, 2017. Photo by: MCpl Chris Ringius, Formation Imaging Services Halifax
  • A CH-124 Sea King helicopter air lifts one of several crates filled with clean water to the island of Dominica  during Operation RENAISSANCE IRMA, a relief mission in the Caribbean following the destruction of Hurricane Maria, on September 27, 2017. Photo by: MCpl Chris Ringius, Formation Imaging Services Halifax
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