After decades of work covering thousands of square kilometres, the Flin Flon chapter of the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA) is hanging up its wings.
The local chapter of the organization, created to help aid police and authorities in search and rescue work, will dissolve and donate the items attached with it to different sources.
The group’s rescue trailer, currently located at the Flin Flon Airport not far from the main terminal building, will be donated to the airport itself. The six members of the group officially handed the keys off to airport manager Jeni East Jan. 6. The trailer served as an operations base and meeting centre for the group for years.
Inside the terminal, there will be two plaques, mounted on a wall, commemorating the work of CASARA and the volunteers who kept the group running for decades.
The ongoing march of time and age is the reason for the move. The group now has six members remaining - the average age of the six is over 80. None of the group can get out to search anymore and members have been unable to find younger, qualified pilots with the ability to aid in search and rescue work.
Stewart Graham served with the group for over 35 years. When it came time to hand over the keys, he said he was upset to see the group end.
“To be honest, I’m sad to see it go. If you see the group though, there’s lots of grey hair there. The average age is 80 - I’m the youngest and I’m 71,” he said.
Any items belonging to CASARA Manitoba will be donated to other remaining units, while any funds left in the organization’s accounts will be donated to the airport itself.
“The airport has been very good to us,” Graham said.
When the group started in the 1990s, CASARA’s Flin Flon chapter did not have a permanent operations base, meeting in church basements, rented rooms and halls, unused hangars and the basement of the Flin Flon Public Library. A permanent base was needed, which led to the building of the CASARA trailer.
Member Gene Kostuchuk had access to a mechanical shop and oversaw the building of the trailer. Volunteers raised money to cover expenses, holding bingos to help cut costs, while other volunteers helped furnish the trailer, electrify it, maintain it and provide it with up-to-date equipment - the total number of people involved went into the dozens.
“I used my shop and built everything in there, with everybody helping me,” said Kostuchuk.
The motto for CASARA nationally is “that others may live” - the volunteers who take part travel great distances at high personal risk to help make the save when needed. Standard search procedure would call for a four-person unit - one pilot to fly the search plane, one navigator in the front seat and two spotters searching the ground below - “the most important people on the plane,” Graham said.
“They’re the eyes of the plane. The pilot’s keeping them flying safely, the navigator’s keeping it on line and the spotters are looking out the window.”
In times past, CASARA would be called on by authorities to help locate possible downed planes or people lost deep in the bush. Pilots flew to remote areas, often requiring landing to refuel at remote wilderness lodges or camps, to find people who had been reported missing. Kostuchuk’s Cessna 185, which seated four people, was perfect for the job, as were other planes belonging to local pilots.
“We could get called out by RCMP - we could get called out if there is a downed airplane. There's an emergency locator transmitter [ELT] in the plane - you crash, that'll set it off,” Graham said.
“[Canadian Forces Base] Trenton gets a signal, they localize it and then if it’s in our area, they’ll call us and say, ‘here it is - set up a search, give us the numbers,’ and we go and find them. We search at a thousand feet, 1,500 feet above ground, going two miles a minute.”
“I put in quite a few hours in training,” said Kostuchuk.
“There was an awful lot of training in first aid, survival, how to get by if you’re stuck some place. It was a lot of training mainly into first aid, because it’s search and rescue, but with a lot of training in spotting. We spent an awful lot of hours flying, because we had several planes and we had quite a few spotters.”
Calls for searches came from across the north for the local chapter. CASARA member Gerry Angell, himself an accomplished pilot, recalled one call for lost canoers who were lost between Nelson House and Hudson Bay.
“They were 17 days overdue. We took off, landed at a lake at a lodge and got extra fuel, then followed the river up to York Factory and the rapids there. That’s where we found them - they were on shore. They had tipped their canoe over and they were on the shore,” he said.
“We circled there and threw a message to them out of the airplane, saying that a helicopter would be there for them either that night or tomorrow morning. That was all done by volunteers.”
Not every rescue call was a life-or-death matter. Angell also recalled one rescue call that took a Flin Flon crew hundreds of kilometres north to Reindeer Lake.
“One time, we got a call from Trenton - they called us and said they had an ELT going off north of Reindeer Lake. They said it faded in and out and it wasn’t stationary - it was an odd thing. We loaded up a crew, we got there with extra gas in my floats,” he said.
“What it was, was some canoers. One of them was a pilot and he took his ELT out of his airplane and took it in his backpack. He’d tripped and fell or dropped it and that set it off - they were cruising down rivers, going behind rocks and all that.”
Other chapters of the group are also starting to fall away for similar reasons to the Flin Flon chapter. The CASARA chapter in Swan River shut down last year, but other chapters remain in operation, ready to assist in looking for people lost in the woods and bring them back to safety.
“It’s like the slogan says - ‘That others may live’. That’s the purpose of your service - so others may live,” Kostuchuk said.