Ice Floe Rescue

by Paul V. Tomascik

COPA / Canadian Flight

"Rockcliffe traffic, Challenger India Papa Victor Tango rolling on two seven, straight out westbound, climbing to two thousand en route to Pembroke."

This was another eagerly anticipated flight for Stephen in his brand new Challenger ultralight. He had spent the last three years carefully saving and acquiring the kit section by section and now the all-yellow bird was his pride and joy. He was as meticulous in flying it as he had been with its construction.

An aeroplane rated pilot with 30 hours on type, including six hours dual with an experienced check pilot, Stephen was becoming cautiously comfortable with his Challenger's performance characteristics. Today's cross-country was marked by clear blue skies, unlimited visibility and light winds from the northwest - a beautiful late winter day in the Ottawa Valley.

The little yellow bird approached two thousand feet in less than two minutes. Easing back on the throttle, Stephan checked his climb, quickly scanned the engine instruments and nailed the altimeter to 2000 feet. He was diligent in his airmanship, a discipline he acquired while training for his ticket.

When he was a renter pilot Stephen had envied the independence that aircraft owners enjoyed. However he was also realistic about the acute need to support his family. Aircraft ownership would have to wait. When he saw an ad for the Challenger, one thing that caught his attention was the marketing claim of the plane's low operating cost.

After more research he began to see the feasibility of owning such an airplane. Stephan decided to take an intro flight with a local dealer and then realized that driving his own set of wings was within reach. That was history and now he was enjoying his dream with a routine cross-country. Or so he thought!

Constantly scanning the airspace and terrain was second nature for Stephen as he passed over the mouth of the Gatineau River. At this time of year the local waterways were still choked with ice but there were sections of fast-moving currents and white-water that never froze. As he headed west over Deschenes Quarry something towards the Ottawa River caught his eye. He turned his head and noticed a large ice floe in the middle of the river with two dark spots at its centre. Something told him to have a closer look.

He banked hard left and headed for the river, descending to 1400 feet to get under the Ottawa TCA. As he got closer, he could see the ice floe moving at a rapid clip as the fast moving current carried it towards the rapids. Instinctively Stephen pulled back the power, cranked in some flaps and slowed down for a better look. What he saw gave him a start.

The two dark spots took form as a child and dog! Without hesitation, he dumped another 500 feet and leveled out to 40 mph. He was skirting Ottawa's control zone and in a flash he flipped the frequency on his radio to Ottawa Tower.

"Mayday Mayday Mayday! Challenger India Papa Victor Tango at nine hundred feet over the Ottawa River, west of the Champlain bridge, left-hand orbit over a child on a disintegrating ice floe. Require immediate assistance!"

"Papa Victor Tango, this is Ottawa Tower, we check your situation, please give aircraft type and squawk ident if able."

"Papa Victor Tango is a yellow two-place Challenger ultralight, negative transponder, continuing left-hand orbit." The Challenger was able to turn and hold directly over the child in a very tight radius.

Stephen saw that the piece of ice was approximately 120 feet square and that it was drifting towards the Quebec shore. This is where the rapids were largest and he realized that the current's grasp would bring the ice to turbulent water and break it to pieces. The child was in grave and imminent danger! Stephen noted the time. In seven minutes, maybe nine on the outside, the platform of ice would hit rough water.

Stephen relayed this information to the controller and asked for a chopper. He correctly figured that a boat rescue was too hazardous and too slow to reach the victim. As precious seconds ticked by, he noticed a crowd gathering on the Ontario side of the river. There were police vehicles and an ambulance but no sign of a rescue craft.

"Papa Victor Tango, this is Ottawa Tower, we have a civilian helicopter airborne and inbound to your location from Montebello, ETA twenty minutes."

Stephen's instant reply surprised even him: "Ottawa Tower, Papa Victor Tango, we need a rescue helo with a sling & hoist from Uplands now. This kid has less than five minutes to live."

Silence from the radio. There were probably no armed forces helicopters at the nearby military base and the only helicopter in the vicinity was too far away. Was he about to witness a tragedy?

The child and dog, it seemed, remained motionless in the middle of the ice. It dawned on Stephen that the ice floe presented itself as a 120-foot runway with patches of wind-blown snow on its surface. Its longest axis was oriented into the wind. Could he attempt a landing and extraction?

He had to think fast. His mind was racing, remarkably swift in assessing the risks. Can the aircraft land on such a small target, a moving one at that? Would the ice hold the added weight? And how stable was the floating ice mass? The child and dog were obstacles. Would they be struck by a wing or perhaps run into the airplane?

The surface looked sound with patches of bare ice, but would the wheeled aircraft sink in the snow? And, if the landing was successful, would he be able to lift off in time with the added weight of a passenger? He saw his own daughter in his mind as he orbited the moving sheet of ice.

"Ottawa Tower, Papa Victor Tango is setting up for a rescue landing. Standby with emergency response team at the International. If we don't get off and the ice breaks up, we'll have a fighting chance by remaining with the aircraft. Please notify rescue authorities downriver near the mill and on the Quebec shore to standby."

Again, he was surprised at the clarity and authoritative barrage of his transmission. He was noticeably focused and composed. Nothing mattered now but this rescue.

"Papa Victor Tango, this is Ottawa Tower, will do and God speed. Winds are currently …" Stephen wasn't listening.

He had no time to waste with a perfect circuit. The altimeter now read 500 feet but he knew he was at about 400 feet AGL. On downwind, he set up the aircraft for a short field landing. He was well aware of his aircraft's STOL capabilities. Its flaperons served as flaps and ailerons and they covered the entire trailing edge of each wing. With their full extension he was able to slow the ship to 30 mph, giving him a 5-mph safety cushion before stall. He'd bleed off more speed on final and with the headwind he figured he would touch down at less than 20 mph.

His circuit resembled a teardrop as he kept the moving island in sight. Once on final, he removed a little more throttle and pulled back the stick. He was 300 feet from his landing spot, which was about 10 feet from the edge and about a wing's span to the right of where the child was standing on the imaginary runway. But the button kept moving and he realized that his approach path was becoming dangerously diagonal due to the moving ice. Cursing his poor judgement, he quickly applied power and S-turned to match his arrival with the fictitious centre-line. He noticed large waves with white caps pass under him and then he was in ground effect with the ASI reading 22 mph.

He felt the plane stop almost on touchdown. In an instant he noticed a little girl in front of the plane with her arms around the neck of a visibly shaking yellow lab. No time to waste. He shut the engine down, jumped out of the aircraft and ran towards the girl. Only then, did he hear the roar of the violent water. All of his senses were heightened and his mind felt razor sharp. He assimilated the situation during every anxious second. The takeoff run from the icy aircraft carrier looked much shorter than it did from above.

But half the battle was over. The ice floe felt relatively firm with compacted snow offering good traction - probably a result of being wind-blown and hardened over the long winter months. As he approached the girl, about 9 or 10 years old, he saw that she was wearing a blue cover-all type snowsuit, winter boots, toque and mitts. He figured her weight at about 80 pounds in total. The dog bolted with its tail between its legs and made a wide arc away from the pair as Stephen reached out for the girl. Would she resist his actions? Would she see him as a stranger to be shunned rather than a would-be rescuer?

"Hi, my name is Stephen and I'm a pilot. I've come to get you off the ice in my airplane and bring you home to your family. We have to go quickly before the ice starts to break apart. What's your name?" His words were soothing and he used the right mix of reassurance and fear to get her to cooperate.

"Rachel," she replied softly.

"Follow me Rachel, we have to go now."

"We have to take Tawny too," she cried.

Stephen conceded in his mind that he might have to take the dog if the girl insisted but knew that the added weight was a detriment. It was a small female lab, maybe 55 pounds. He'd drape the dog across the girl's lap but he couldn't afford to waste time in getting a terrified animal into his plane. If the dog didn't come willingly under Rachel's command, he'd have to forcibly lift her into the passenger seat and leave the dog. It's something he didn't want to do.

"Tawny, come here," Rachel yelled. The dog skulked towards the little girl as the three of them reached the Challenger. Picking Rachel up, Stephen firmly but gently strapped her in. The dog was nervous and circled away as Stephen grabbed for it. The girl called out for her pet again and as it approached the plane Stephen's hold was good. The squirming dog resisted but he simply heaved it across Rachel's knees.

"Hold her tight Rachel, we're going flying." Climbing into the pilot's seat, it felt as if an eternity had passed. The Rotax engine started instantly when Stephen felt a sudden jolt. To his amazement the left half of the ice island broke away and disappeared beneath the waves. The ice was breaking apart and beginning to turn clockwise away from the relative wind. Every ounce of headwind was needed for the takeoff!

Brakes applied, he cranked the flaperons fully down for a short field takeoff and then advanced the throttle smoothly to full. He waited for the tachometer to max out and then held it there for several microseconds. Releasing the brakes and simultaneously checking the yaw with rudder, he danced on the pedals to keep his line true.

The Challenger leapt forward as Stephen held the throttle to its stop. He wished he had practiced his short field takeoffs. As he looked down the runway he saw to his amazement, the distant shoreline moving to the left. The ice was beginning to spin. He eased the stick back to reduce drag on the nose-wheel as he fixated on the raging water in front of him. The ASI needle was moving but not fast enough for his liking.

Deftly manipulating the stick, he felt it become more responsive as speed built and the wings began to lift their payload. A quick glance at the airspeed indicator told him he was in ground effect and on a borderline stall. Stick forward, he bought precious airspeed as he skimmed the waves and then the Challenger's superior climb performance kicked in. Shooting up like a rocket, the altimeter wound up at a phenomenal rate in the cold air. He felt as if he was on his back as he nursed his airspeed to the best climb angle and away from danger. He glanced back at Rachel.

"Are you OK?" he yelled. She nodded weakly. In the climbing left turn he looked below to see the island that they were on just moments ago disappear as it fragmented into its primal state.

Catching himself concentrating on what might have been a watery grave, Stephen snapped back into flying mode. He realized that his passengers were probably finding the steep climb angles and banks unsettling so he eased the stick forward and leveled out at a thousand feet. He oriented himself and called Ottawa.

"Ottawa Tower, Papa Victor Tango, at a thousand feet over Deschenes Quarry. Two souls …correction ... three souls safely on board and uninjured. Requesting landing at the nearest emergency apron at your discretion."

Stephen, heard a screeching whoop through his headset.

"Papa Victor Tango, this is Ottawa Tower, if you have the airport in site approach straight in. Cleared to land on runway one-four. Maintain this frequency until shutdown. Report on final. Winds are …"

"Papa Victor Tango, copy, straight in and cleared to land on one four."

As Stephen adjusted his altimeter setting, he asked Rachel for her full name and home phone number so her parents could be notified. Still shocked, she couldn't remember her number but Stephen called in her name and full description, dog included.

Runway one four was the longest at Ottawa International. Stephen noticed a bevy of emergency response vehicles with their flashing lights so he touched down adjacent to them. The winds were light and variable and his landing roll was short. As he turned onto the nearest taxiway, police cars, ambulances, fire trucks and vans with rotating beacons surrounded the plane.

As soon as he shut down Rachel was whisked away into the arms of the emergency care people. Somebody leashed the dog and it disappeared into a waiting car. One by one the crowd dispersed until he was alone on the taxiway. No aircraft were flying due to the airport's closure for his landing.

Stephen was spent. The grave and imminent danger was over. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He wanted to go home. As he composed himself he tried to maintain his professional flying decorum by instinctively listening to the ATIS and then calling up Ottawa Ground to request taxi clearance to the active runway. Switching to the tower, Stephen was granted immediate takeoff clearance. The pros at the other end of the mike didn't question his intentions or advise him that the authorities, the press and heads-of-state would want to talk to him. He saved a little girl's life today and that's all that mattered.

With full power he climbed into the blue sky as he patted his little yellow plane, proud to be a pilot-in-command.

Webmaster's Words: If, dear reader, you haven't figured it out by now, Paul Tomascik's "Ice Floe Rescue" is a work of fiction! His story was published in the March 2000 edition of COPA / Canadian Flight. Owners of some of the 24 Challengers attending the 10th annual Winter Rendezvous at Chateau Montebello the previous month were particularly struck by the authentic ring of the tale. They had flown over that exact same area and had indeed noted the hazardous ice floes upriver of the rapids!

Paul has a commercial pilot licence and, after writing this story, has started acquiring his Challenger in sub-kits. He now writes regularly for COPA under the banner "Pilot In Command". Paul hopes one day to publish his short stories into an aviation anthology. We'll certainly look forward to it!

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