A routine training session in Canada’s Arctic transformed into a real-life search and rescue mission after a Royal Canadian Air Force crew spotted two hunters who had been stranded for days.
The training mission had set out from Hall Beach, a hamlet of about 750 people that sits north of the Arctic circle in Nunavut. They were heading to an old mine site on the first day of a two-week annual sovereignty exercise in Canada’s north.
After locating the mine, the crew was surveying the vast tundra from their Twin Otter when one member spotted what seemed to be a man waving at the plane.
They passed over the area again. This time they could clearly make out two men standing on the sea ice, waving at the plane.
“You could probably go crazy trying to think of all the things that had to line up for us to see these guys out there,” Royal Canadian Air Force captain Thom Doelman told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
The men had set out from Hall Beach three days earlier on a hunting trip. About 40km south of the hamlet, their snowmobile broke down and their GPS locator device had failed to activate, leaving them stranded in the remote area, with temperatures of minus-45oC with windchill.
From high above, the crew assessed the situation. In about 30 minutes it would be too dark to attempt a landing. Furthermore, the plane was not equipped with the skis normally used to land on sea ice, leaving Doelman — who had never landed a plane with wheels on ice — worried about whether the frozen water could bear the weight of the plane.
Still, the crew was not willing to simply fly by two men who could be in distress, he said.
“We didn’t know of any missing persons, but we felt that given that it’s the Arctic, given that it was about to get dark, that we couldn’t continue back to Hall Beach without checking on these guys,” he said.
He carefully landed the plane, keeping its nose elevated to allow for a quick take off if the ice showed any sign of cracking. Once landed, Doelman immediately readied to leave, estimating that the crew had a 15-minute window before it would be too dark to take off.
The plane was back in the air when the two rescued hunters — Tyler Amarualik and 15-year-old Eugene Gibbons — asked whether their friend had been found: a third person, Lloyd Satuqsi, was still somewhere on the sea ice, having attempted to walk back to the hamlet.
“At this point my heart sank, because to find out there was a third guy out there, it was unbelievable,” Doelman said.
Darkness had now set in and the plane was running low on fuel.
The crew alerted the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who paired with the hamlet to launch a ground search.
Satuqsi was found near the hamlet about 12 hours later and taken to a hospital to be treated for frostbite and hypothermia.
The two others were in good health, with just minor frostbite on their toes.
Doelman said he was astounded at the slim odds of stumbling across the pair in the vast, open tundra.
“They’re the luckiest two guys in the Arctic that I know,” he said.
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