Polar bear damages RCAF search and rescue chopper

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Chalk it up to the perils of parking overnight on the tarmac of a northern airfield in Canada.

A CH-149 Cormorant search and rescue helicopter was damaged earlier this month by what appears to have been a puzzled polar bear.

The aircraft belong to 413 Squadron, which is based in Greenwood, N.S. It spent the night at a remote airstrip in Saglek, Newfoundland and Labrador on Sept. 16, said Lt.-Col. Brent Vaino, the squadron commander.

The aircraft was supposed to land on a helipad at an automated NORAD radar station near the remote community, but poor weather over northern Labrador prevented the crew from reaching it. They were detoured to an airstrip closer to sea level.

“The crew had to park the aircraft down below, not up at elevation like they wanted to,” said Vaino. “Because of that, it’s an area with a body of water on either side and polar bears do occasionally transit on either side of them, and this case that’s what happened.”

More curious than hungry?

In the darkness, while the crew slept at the radar station, the bear chose to conduct a snap inspection of the brightly painted helicopter, causing what the air force said was “superficial damage” when it pushed on the side door.

Vaino said he believes the animal was curious and likely not hungry.

The bear managed to pop out an emergency exit window and rip the cover off the nose cone.

“The polar bear did not get inside the helicopter and there were no crew members in the vicinity at the time,” said the air force’s Twitter post, which was accompanied by a series of photos that show the damaged side of the helicopter and the window with an oily paw smear.

“Probably like most folks, I chuckled at bit,” Vaino said of the initial report that reached him in Nova Scotia.

“I think it’s fair to say this is first time anybody has encountered this — in this Wing, anyhow.”

A polar bear walks along an ice floe in the Franklin Strait in the Northwest Passage on July 23, 2007. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Search and rescue personnel are more accustomed to the hazards posed by polar bears when they operate out of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Vaino said “unique challenges like this” are why the air force trains these crews in the far North.

A security detachment normally accompanies the helicopter. Vaino said that because of the pandemic — and the fear of introducing COVID-19 into such a remote community — the number of military personnel on the training mission was restricted.

It took four days to repair the aircraft and get it out of Saglek because replacement parts had to be flown in and foul weather prevented a military fixed-wing plane from landing. The spares eventually came in by helicopter.

A Canadian airforce search and rescue helicopter was damaged recently by a polar bear during a training exercise. The empty aircraft was parked on the tarmac at the Saglek airport in northern Labrador. (RCAF/Twitter)

Saglek is located in the Torngat Mountains and was originally built as a U.S. Air Force base in the 1950s at the beginning of the Cold War.

It was later handed over to the Canadian military and is now home to an automated long-range radar station that forms part of NORAD’s North Warning System.

The nearby Saglek Fjord — known by local fishermen as “The Devil’s Place” because of its ever-changing winds — was profiled last spring in National Geographic magazine as “the best place in the world to see polar bears.”

The Cormorant helicopter was participating in a northern search and rescue exercise.

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