It has been almost a year since the earthquake.
|Big Dawg delivering 750 litres of water.|
A couple of days ago, a young guy at work was giving a power point history lesson on 423 Maritime Helicopter Squadron. It was a pretty dry summary of someone else’s research. The presenter stumbled over the script and the slides. Unfamiliar with the material and nervous about the crowd, he tried to ad lib.
He spoke of 423’s battle honors, listing Normandy, the Bay of Biscay, Battle of the Atlantic, and Kuwait- then he added that our tradition of excellence continued in Haiti. The rest of the audience fidgeted and did not notice the addition. To me, it was the only thing he said that I remember.
I was a member of the air detachment that sailed with HMCS Athabaskan 36 hours after the terrible quake. Looking back, I remember being excited to be going on this mission. That feeling of boyhood thrill was soon tempered when we loaded 10,000 body bags on the back of the ship. They came stacked on pallets. My last thought sailing out of Halifax harbour was that we were going someplace that a part of us was never going to leave.
Our crew launched at daybreak the first day on scene. The sun was rising over the early morning cloud and the air smelled like fire. Everything felt still. As soon as we made landfall we began to assess the destruction- calling out on the aircraft’s intercom the various points of interest- a collapsed building, a fire, signs for help, bodies. Soon we realized that we didn’t need to highlight areas of destruction- everything was destroyed.
|One of the many signs for help.|
That first morning we had to transport the ship’s Executive Officer (XO) to meet with the Canadian point of contact and the UN representative in Leogane- and this would lead to my greatest single accomplishment of the entire mission.
The day was just beginning, but it was already getting hot. There was’t any wind that morning and I’m sure if it was anyplace else in the Caribbean it would have been the nicest day.
Heavy helicopters don’t like hot, humid, windless days. The landing zone for the meeting was relayed to us, and it soon became apparent that we were limited (torque limited to be exact) with the number of options as to how to land there. I briefed my approach plan to the crew. I detailed the wind and obstacles and an escape route in the event we had an engine malfunction. My approach was to maximize the limited wind we had available and I was going to use a shallow approach path to limit the power requirements that I would need to stop. Unfortunately, my approach path flew directly over the only undamaged building in Leogane.
As we flew over, the guys in the back of the aircraft said, “Oh, we just blew the roof off that house.” We continued with the approach. The XO met with the military commanders on the ground and they began to develop a coordinated relief strategy. When we departed the landing zone, we learned that we flew over an orphanage.
I blew the roof off the only standing orphanage in Haiti.
I felt pretty bad about it. Later that evening, the Captain of the ship called me to his cabin to talk about what I had done. He told me that we are all doing our very best under very difficult circumstances and although I blew the roof off the orphanage, the Canadian command team was able to solidify a relief strategy. He continued by reassuring me that he had assigned a ship’s team of engineers to go to the orphanage the next day and make it “better than before.”
I snapped to attention and said “Thank you sir,” And then with a smirk I continued. “...being from Newfoundland I am quite familiar with make work projects. I’m am just glad I could provide my expertise.” Thankfully the ship’s command team appreciated my sarcasm.
I believe by the time we left Haiti to return to Canada, the ship constructed eight separate orphanages in Leogane.
|Moving a hospital over a mountain.|
I was the only clown on that deployment. The other members of the air detachment were average Canadians who did unimaginable feats exceptionally well.
My aircraft captain (AC) once shot an approach into a remote mountain valley to deliver food and water to a village that had not received supplies for weeks. The landing zone was so small and off level, that the AC had to hover on two wheels for twenty minutes while the two ‘backenders’ unloaded 3000 lbs of aid.
My AESOP (don’t ask me what it stands for), held a dying woman’s hand for a half hour while we tried to transport her to the USS Comfort. She smiled at him and whispered thank you.
My TACCO embodied the Canadian effort in Haiti. His leadership was the reason why we were successful. This photo of him lifting an elderly woman from the aircraft will forever represent to me what it means to be Canadian.
|The Tacco is the guy with the wedgie.|
Sometime during the mission, we went back to our early squadron roots and painted some nose art on our aircraft. We delivered two mobile hospitals, over 160 000 lbs of supplies and 45 000 litres of drinkable water.
|Big Dawg's nose art.|
It was very humbling to be on that air detachment with those people. IMAX just completed a movie about the event. If you watch carefully you will see those great people and the clown.