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On guard for thee

It’s one of the most contested issues in Canadian politics – “a top priority,” says Prime Minister Stephen Harper – but for the men and women protecting Canada’s Far North, it’s simply a rare opportunity to experience real adventure while working with dynamic, versatile aircraft.

May 9, 2011  By Peter Pigott

It’s one of the most contested issues in Canadian politics – “a top priority,” says Prime Minister Stephen Harper – but for the men and women protecting Canada’s Far North, it’s simply a rare opportunity to experience real adventure while working with dynamic, versatile aircraft.

Canadian Rangers from the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group (1 CRPG) meet up with a 440 Squadron CC-138 Twin Otter aircraft near Eureka, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, as part of Operation NUNALIVUT 08. photo: Master Cpl. Kevin Paul, CF Combat Camera


Protecting Canada’s Arctic sovereignty is a huge undertaking. The Canadian Arctic begins at the 60th parallel and comprises 40 per cent of Canada’s landmass with more than 19,000 islands in the Arctic Archipelago. With its potentially vast reserves of fossil fuels, abundance of minerals, gold, and diamonds – and potential for shorter shipping routes as the ice cap melts away in the face of global warming – this once inaccessible land is drawing increasing national and international attention. It’s little wonder the Canada First Defence Strategy calls for the Canadian Forces (CF) to have the commitment to “vigorously protect Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.”

Since 2006, military responsibility for protecting the interests of the North has fallen under Canadian Command with the Joint Task Force North, (JTFN) located in Yellowknife, N.W.T. The JFTN is responsible for all CF operations in the north.


These days, regular Northern Patrols are conducted by CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft. With an endurance of 17 hours and a range of almost 10,000 kilometres, these strategic surveillance aircraft safeguard Canada’s waters from security challenges such as illegal fishing, immigration, drug trafficking and pollution violations.

The air force, in conjunction with NORAD, also maintains four Forward Operating Locations (FOLs) where it can pre-deploy CF-18 Hornet fighter aircraft in response to, or anticipation of, unwelcome activity. The FOLs are located in Inuvik and Yellowknife, N.W.T., and in Iqaluit and Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. They provide all the necessary infrastructure and supplies to support the air force’s fighter aircraft in these remote and isolated regions.

Given the lack of roads or ports throughout much of the North, the CF CC-177 Globemaster III and the CC-130 Hercules also provide vital resupply services for northern military installations like CF Station Alert on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island.

The Canadian Air Force officially took over the responsibility of CFS Alert on April 1, 2008, and the CC-177 Globemaster made its inaugural landing there on April 14, 2010. With its much greater carrying capacity, the CC-177 can move approximately three times more cargo to CFS Alert on each trip than was done with the CC-130 Hercules.

During OPERATION BOXTOP, the annual resupplying of Alert, the Forces runs supplies to the station each spring and fall. Over the past 20 years, the mission has averaged an annual delivery of approximately 294,000 kilograms of dry goods and 2.5 million litres of fuel into CFS Alert.

All roads through Yellowknife

Operating four CC-138 Twin Otters, Yellowknife-based 440 (Transport) Squadron is the only Canadian Forces unit north of the 60th parallel. Although the smallest squadron in the CF that maintains its own aircraft, 440’s 51 personnel cover one-third of Canada’s landmass: four million square kilometres from Whitehorse across to Northern Quebec, then to Baffin Island and north to Alert. Their 40-year-old Twin Otters provide an air transport capability to JTFN and the Canadian Rangers.

The pilot of this CF-18 Hornet skillfully “takes the cable” at Inuvik airport. Photo: Cpl. Jean-Francois Lauzé, DND


Lieutenant-Colonel Dwayne Lovegrove, the squadron’s commanding officer, says providing security support in the most northerly stretches of the Canadian landscape is definitely a unique experience. One operation that typifies this, Lovegrove says, was last year’s Operation NUNALIVUT. It showed the functionality and reliability of the CF’s current aircraft assets, while illustrating the adaptability and resourcefulness of CF staff.

The crux of the operation saw members of the Canadian Rangers establish an ice camp 90 kilometres north of CFS Alert. The insertion of the ice camp on the sea ice allowed the CF the opportunity to extend its patrol range, gain experience in setting up a patrol base on the ice, and conduct trials of new equipment.

CFS Alert is the most northerly permanently inhabited location in the world, and the ice camp location was the farthest north that the Canadian Rangers have ever conducted patrols.

A CC-177 Globemaster III takes off at the Inuvik airport after delivering supplies and equipment to the Canadian Forces Forward Operating Location (FOL). Photo: Cpl. Jean-Francois Lauzé, DND


“Operation NUNALIVUT 2010, for example, provided many of us with a fantastic opportunity to employ the Twin Otter to the extremes of its abilities,” says Lovegrove. “440 Squadron deployed two aircraft in support of this operation to CFS Alert, arriving early in the month. Our ski-equipped Twin Otters almost seemed to enjoy being flown every day despite the bone-chilling temperatures found at that latitude and time of year. It left us with only a few minor maintenance snags to fuss over. We quickly became pretty good at getting the wing ‘skins’ (protective covers) and engine blankets on and off the aircraft, with the bite of the extreme temps providing tangible motivation.”

Lovegrove says the weather was VMC (visual meteorological conditions) for the most part during the operation, allowing for breathtaking views of the starkly rugged, mountainous landscape.

“As several of us were relatively new to operating the aircraft on skis, we set out in the first few days to find nearby fjords to ‘work up’ in, practising the procedures that would allow us to tackle the more formidable sea ice later on,” says Lovegrove. “What powdered snow exists up there tends to accumulate in the fjords, making for landings that were far smoother than what we would soon experience.

“Our confidence bolstered, we soon got into the real work of flying JTFN personnel and Rangers out to Ward Hunt Island, and onto the sea ice. But getting in and out of Ward Hunt was a challenge.”

Lovegrove says someone before them had marked out a short, narrow landing strip with black garbage bags, but getting onto it meant parallelling the ridge and its accompanying “saddle back,” which always featured a solid crosswind on landing.

“If you didn’t nail the touchdown point right off, you quickly were faced with overshooting in order to avoid rocketing onto the uneven sea ice and surrounding ice shelf,” he says. “Similarly, failure to maintain directional control in the post-landing phase would find you hurtling either towards stacked oil drums or the rock face of the adjoining ‘mountain.’ Riding on the skis, you don’t have any brakes for landing, so salvation lies in the judicious use of rudder and the skilled application of reverse propeller thrust.

“Once stopped and shut down, the aircrew immediately became ground crew, faced with the prospect of loading/unloading fuel barrels, burdensome snowmobiles, and in a couple instances, dogs from the Danish ‘Sirius’ patrol.”

Conquering the elements

After a few days of working out onto Ward Hunt Island, Lovegrove’s unit entered the next phase, which involved inserting a Ranger patrol out onto the sea ice some 80-plus nautical miles from shore. Finding a suitable landing site was the first challenge. Only the newest of sea ice is smooth; ice thick enough to reliably support the landing of fixed-wing aircraft typically features several patterns of drift snow, and is far more rugged in nature than what meets the eye.

Aviation technician Cpl. Richard Vantyghem and flight engineer Sgt. Ron Mann of 440 Squadron, Yellowknife, install a new generator on the starboard engine of a CC-138 Twin Otter aircraft at Eureka, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. Photo: Cpl. Jean-Francois Lauzé, DND


Landing on such surfaces feels akin to bellyflopping onto cement, says Lovegrove, with the snow ridges creating miniature ski jumps that cause the aircraft to thump hard, often setting off the ELT (Emergency Locator Transmitter). Takeoffs are even worse, as these same ski jumps repeatedly launch the aircraft prematurely into the air in a series of mini-stalls before it is ready to “slip the surly bonds” – of gravity.

“After my first sea-ice landing, I fully expected to find the airframe rippled with a trail of broken parts behind, but the ruggedness of the Twin Otter won out,” he says. It is during such operations that one truly gains a deep respect for this uniquely Canadian aircraft, he says. “It really is built like the proverbial outhouse of old.”

Lovegrove says the experience taught him the true meaning of Arctic sovereignty. For most Canadians it’s a clichéd catchphrase overused by media and politicians alike. But for the CF, it’s much more than that. As Lovegrove says, “We are the physical expression of Canada maintaining sovereignty over the North.”

New eyes in the sky

While a variety of fixed-wing aircraft play a critical role in servicing Canada’s Far North, they aren’t the only “eyes in the sky” monitoring the northern landscape.

Project Polar Epsilon is a $60-million space-based initiative that uses imagery and information from Canada’s radar satellite, RADARSAT-2, to provide enhanced land and sea surveillance capabilities for the Canadian Forces at home and abroad. With its polar orbit and radar characteristics of all-weather, day or night sensor capability, RADARSAT-2 is ideal for Arctic land surveillance.

When interviewed by Wings about Arctic sovereignty, one subject matter expert within Canada Command called the project an integral part of the future of Arctic security. “We are in a period of transition, from a construct where northern surveillance is being conducted solely by aircraft to a new construct where we will have persistent, wide-area surveillance sensors, which include space-based RADARSAT-2, space-based AIS [Automated Identification System] and the CCG-run, ground-based LRIT [Long Range Identification and Tracking].”

In June 2010, Canada Command assumed responsibility for the Polar Epsilon Project Arctic Surveillance (Land) when it achieved Full Operational Capability. Canada Command now has access to RADARSAT-2 imagery of the North and is working to refine the RADARSAT capability for maritime surveillance.

In the future, with the persistent, wide-area surveillance assets in place, mobile resources such as Auroras, and possibly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), Canada Command will be able to provide reactive reconnaissance to investigate contacts identified for followup by the persistent surveillance assets.

The UAV project is still in the requirements definition phase, with many technological hurdles, such as the command and control over the long distances.

“That in a nutshell is what we foresee as the way ahead,” said the source.

Whether it be UAVs, new fixed-wing aircraft such as the hotly debated Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike fighter, a combination of both, or indeed another fighter jet, one thing is for certain – protecting Canada’s interests in the Far North will continue to be one of our most critical issues in the years to come.


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