Skip to main content

A Canadian soldiers jumps into Halifax harbour from a Sea King helicopter as he participates in advanced amphibious training from the Shearwater Jetty in Halifax on Tuesday, July 30, 2013.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

As the rear door of the Sea King helicopter flew open, crew member John Barker was sucked out and left clinging to the side by his fingernails, his feet pressing a wheel well.

Pilot John Cody recalls reacting instinctively during the June 12, 1970, incident as dust kicked up in his cockpit from the unexpected air suction. He banked the chopper sharply, sending it sideways and keeping Barker sprawled across the fuselage.

Three crew members in the rear joined hands, and Barker was pulled to safety as the helicopter kept flying 100 metres over the water south of Halifax, travelling 270 kilometres per hour.

"He would have split open if he'd hit the waters from that height, so he's a very lucky man," said Cody, now retired.

The moment of sheer terror is one story air crew and maintenance workers will share this week in Halifax as they gather to recall the 50-year history of Canada's Sea King helicopters. A series of events are planned for three days, including a tribute at the Grand Parade on Thursday.

But as they mark the golden anniversary, tales of survival are mixed with questions over how much longer the helicopters should be allowed to fly.

Aaron Plamondon, a historian at Mount Royal University in Calgary, says the anniversary is a date that should concern Canadians because there is no replacement ready to take over for the aging aircraft.

"A 50-year anniversary means that they can no longer provide reliable and effective service to a modern navy that needs the latest sensors and avionics at sea," said Plamondon, who is also the author of "The Politics of Procurement," a history of the replacement effort.

"The longer the Sea Kings fly, the more it costs the Canadian taxpayer as they are very expensive to maintain at this point."

In 1993, then-Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien cancelled a $4.8-billion procurement contract that would have provided 43 EH-101 helicopters intended to replace the Sea Kings.

Eleven years later, Ottawa signed contracts worth $5-billion with Sikorsky to build 28 H-92 Cyclone helicopters. They were originally due to start relieving the Sea Kings in 2008 but they have experienced a series of delays and cost overruns.

Former Sea King pilot John Orr – the author of Perseverance: The Canadian Sea King Story – prefers to focus on its ability to adapt from its original job as a Cold War submarine hunter to tasks such as hauling supplies over the deserts of Somalia, monitoring surface vessels in the First Gulf War and chasing drug runners off the coast.

"It's not a sports car," he said. "It's a truck, but it's reliable like a truck and it's very utilitarian like a truck. What constantly amazes me is how the people – the technicians and the air crew – have been able to keep this thing going and doing a good job."

The helicopter purchase was announced in the fall of 1962, and the first aircraft – Sea Kings 4001 and 4002 – flew to Canadian Forces Base Shearwater on the outskirts of Halifax on Aug. 1, 1963.

Gordon Gray, one of the first pilots, said he was awed by their capabilities.

Sitting in the Shearwater Aviation Museum before its predecessor, the Sikorsky "Horse" S-55– he holds a photo of himself in the light fatigues of the time, standing before the new Sea King.

"We were going from flying a Model T to driving a modern Cadillac," said Gray, 75.

He recalled how the Canadian military used the Sea Kings aboard destroyers and the aircraft carrier HMCS Bonaventure during exercises in the North Atlantic, training to play cat and mouse with Russian subs.

Base technicians and Canadian industry pioneered a "Beartrap" system to winch the aircraft onto warships, an innovation that revolutionized the ability of the ships to monitor Russia's fleet.

Jim Clarke was a 22-year-old captain on Feb. 7, 1969, when he experienced the helicopter's ability to survive.

After lifting off at night from HMCS Bonaventure, the helicopter was sucked up by a waterspout, a gyrating column of water formed by a whirlwind above the sea. It twirled around like a top, rising about 420 metres in less than a minute before being spit out from the top of the funnel.

"The four of us got back to the carrier fine. The aircraft was shut down, checked over by maintenance and went flying the next day," he recalls with a smile.

As the Cold War came to an end, pilots like Cody and Larry McWha rose up the ranks to senior positions and found themselves adapting to new missions such as the First Gulf War.

McWha recalls returning to CFB Shearwater with a Sea King squadron on April 7, 1991, after serving in battle to remove Saddam Hussein's troops from Kuwait. Before the assignment, maintenance crews had worked feverishly for 10 days, stripping the Sea Kings of anti-sub warfare and refitting them with weapons systems and night-vision equipment.

During the war, the helicopters saw the eerie signals on new gear telling them they'd been targeted by anti-aircraft guns or missiles, forcing the pilots to take evasive measures in case the threat became reality.

"The most memorable moment was leading the squadron back ... the same five aircraft and the same crews, all in one piece," said McWha.

The former squadron commanding officer says the Sea Kings frequently had technical challenges, such as malfunctioning sonar gear and transmission difficulties, often forcing the cancellation of missions and training tasks.

"You'd take off in a perfectly serviceable mission and then something breaks on you or fails on you, and you have to abort the mission," McWha said.

The irony, he adds, is that today the aircraft are more reliable, as technicians have dealt with almost every conceivable problem through the decades.

When the aviators and maintenance technicians gather, there will be sombre moments, as they recall crashes or mishaps that took 10 lives over the years.

McWha struggled to keep his composure as he recalled a fiery 1994 crash into a hillside near Saint John, N.B.

"I had to take a call from the pilot's mother who had heard the news on the radio in Peterborough, Ont., and I confirmed to her that her son had perished," he said.

A fuel line had frayed and leaked, feeding a fire roaring on the helicopter.

That crash and other ditchings and aborted missions in the past three decades have brought the issue of replacing the Sea Kings to the fore.

The original fleet of 41 has dropped to 25 aircraft today, some of which are also stationed in Patricia Bay, B.C. Just two weeks ago, one of the Sea Kings tipped over and smashed its rotor blades on the tarmac of CFB Shearwater, sending pieces flying into nearby buildings.

Cody acknowledges the frustrations of cancelled and delayed replacement programs, but says Thursday is a day to recognize accomplishment by thousands of Canadians who've kept the Sea Kings in the air.

"We went from crisis to crisis to crisis," he said.

"The Sea Kings are put on navy ships which are pointed out and away they go out. They're always the first ones there.

"In that sense, there is a great sense of accomplishment."

Interact with The Globe