A Royal Canadian Air Force Twin Otter crew out for some search-and-rescue training accidentally found — and rescued — two Nunavut hunters on the land.
Thom Doelman, a captain with the Royal Canadian Air Force in Yellowknife, said the crew was flying near Hall Beach, Nunavut, during Operation Nunalivut, a sovereignty exercise that happens each year in Canada’s North.
Thursday afternoon’s training exercise was a search mission at an old mine site.
Once the Twin Otter crew found the mine from rough co-ordinates, Doelman began an expanding-square pattern to survey the tundra.
That’s when from his window, Cpl. Jason MacKenzie saw something he didn’t expect — a person who possible needed help.
“As you can imagine, we were shocked to hear this,” said Doelman.
By the time the plane returned for a second pass, there were two people waving on the sea ice.
“We assessed it as a crew,” Doelman said, recalling that they only had about 30 minutes before it would be too dark to attempt a landing.
“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.”
The captain had never landed on sea ice with wheels on the plane instead of the skis, so he did what’s called a “nose-off drag” where the main tires are dragged along the ice to check that it could hold the plane’s weight.
Once Doelman landed beside the pair’s makeshift shelter, he immediately began preparing the plane to take off again. He estimated they had 15 minutes on the ground before it would be too dark to take off.
They invited the two hunters on board and quickly took off again for Hall Beach.
Doelman offered them food and hot water when they asked if he had found their friend.
“At this point my heart sank because to find out there was a third guy out there, it was unbelievable,” he said.
The three had been on the land for three days.
Two adults and a teen — Tyler Amarualik, Lloyd Satuqsi, and Eugene Gibbons — had been on a hunting trip about 40 kilometres south of Hall Beach when their snowmobile broke down. They tried to activate their SPOT device, but it didn’t work.
Gibbons and Amarualik made a temporary shelter while Satugsi started to walk back in the direction of town. But Gibbons and Amarualik hadn’t heard from their friend — or seen any sign of a rescue crew — in two days.
Doelman says the pair thought his Twin Otter crew was looking for them.
“I was very happy I was going home, because I wasn’t sure if I was going home, sleeping outside, fearing that we weren’t going to be found,” Gibbons, 15, said in Inuktitut.
After picking the two up, it was too dark to search — not to mention the plane was low on fuel — so Doelman called ahead to the Hall Beach airport for the RCMP, who, with the hamlet, organized a ground search.
They found Satuqsi near Hall Beach Friday morning around 4:30 a.m.
He was flown to Iqaluit for hypothermia and frostbite, but is in stable condition.
The other two had some minor frostbite on their toes, but are otherwise in good health.
“They’re the luckiest two guys in the Arctic that I know,” said Doelman.
“[Search and rescue] is not our squadron’s primary mission but we still train for it and practice it. It proves why we have to train to be ready for something like this.”