Outside The Comfort Zone
I wish I had worn a white t-shirt, I think, as I climb into the navigators
seat in the plane. In my battles with nausea in the cockpit, the worst
thing is direct sun and heat. Anything I can do to cool down and get in
the shade is key. I wear a ball cap and sunglasses, as few clothes as
possible, and set the cold air vent fully open and aimed straight at me.
If there are goosebumps on my skin and I feel a little hypothermic, thats
I fold up my airsick bag and stuff it down in my sock. Mack, one of the
more experienced members of the air search-and-rescue team in Smithers,
showed me how to do this on a training flight. Then, he said
with a conspiratorial grin, its right there when you need
it. He had been so right: on training flights Id used the
airsick bag a lot.
The cockpit is tiny. I lean hard into my door so Don, the pilot, can get
his seatbelt on. He starts the engine, we put on the headsets, and check
them to make sure we can hear each other and Al, our spotter, whos
sitting behind me. I set the cell phone on vibrate and tuck
it under my leg where I can feel it if it rings.
Taxi; take-off; turn right heading toward Crater Lake. And the cell phones
buzzing away under my leg. Its Lynn.
Ive got more description, she says. This is from
the RCMP. The 10 year old is wearing a pink shirt and navy pants, and
5 year-old is wearing a blue shirt and plaid pants. I pencil this
in the margins of the map on my clipboard.
OK, got that, I reply. Pink shirt and navy pants for
the 10 year-old. Blue shirt and plaid pants for the 5-year old. Anything
else about where they were last seen?
OK, well, we are
I look out the window and feel my stomach
lurch as we climb up over the foothills of Hudson Bay Mountain.
over the cross-country ski trails now, climbing to treeline.
The Gravol has been in my system for almost an hour and half, but Im
feeling dizzy anyway. I usually take a new tablet every 90 minutes, so
I reach into my pouch and get one. This is my first actual search.
My stomach and I do not agree about air search-and-rescue.
I get airsick at the drop of a hat, but my desire to read maps and help
people in trouble typically overrules my stomachs disgust with flying.
But its not like I always win these battles. I love the navigators
role, the guy who reads the maps and takes notes, who relieves the pilot
of having to do anything but fly the plane safely. So, on this July day,
when Lynn, the Zone Commander for air SAR in Northwest BC, called at about
3:00 in the afternoon to say there was an emergencytwo kids lost
somewhere near Crater Lake, a 5 year-old and an 11 year-oldId
downed the Gravol and headed for the airport.
We are now at about 6000 feet and taking our first pass over the Prairie.
Al is in the rear left seat, so well fly a pattern that systematically
brings all of the search area to pass outside his window. Im
going to fly from the ski lodge to Crater Lake and back, and then well
work our way outwards, descending, Don says over the headsets.
Below us the alternating patches of snow and brown grass flash by. Were
lowmaybe 500 feet off the ground. We reach the lake and Don begins
a wide left turn. We head out over the slopes that drop away from the
Prairie on its south side, and I scan the forest far below, working to
calm my jumping stomach. How big would a person look down there? How big
would a kid look?
My eyes drift over to the only small meadow in the endless forest below
me. I note that its got two things in it that arent trees.
Too white, really. Its a marshy sort of clearingperhaps too
wet for trees to grow. Theres a
is that a person down there?
Movingno, wavingwaving at the plane, and
Don, Ive got two people in a meadow at my three oclock.
Theyre waving at the plane.
Don goes into a hard right turn and I strain my eyes to look straight
down. We circle above the meadow. There are two people down there. One
is waving; the other is not. Are they kids?
No one in his right mind, I think, would be down there. Its a small
opening in the forest, well down off the Prairiemore or less on
the way to nowhere. A ten year-old waving and a five year old not waving:
well, I think, thats the behaviour I would expect.
Is there colour? What if they are just other searchers? The older ones
shirt looks white. But then, no, it is pink, pale pink, and the other
one definitely blue. I think thats them
Ive forgotten all about my jumpy stomach now. Lets get
Don takes us straight over the meadow and marks the point on the GPS.
I write down the coordinates and time. We resume circling, this time to
Theyre still waving, confirms Al. We fly around them
for another minute to communicate that we are interested in them. They
sure seem interested in us.
OK, Im going to call Lynn, I say.
Ill fly back over the ski area, so you can hit the cell phone
tower, replies Don.
Hello, says Lynn.
Hi Lynn, we think weve found them. Ive got some coordinates
Let me get a piece of paper. As she says this Don takes us
into a turn over the ski area and heads back west into the sun. Oh no,
not sun. Not now. My stomach is churning, my dizziness increasing. This
is not a good time for the Gravol to cut out.
OK, go ahead, she says.
Five four. Four six, decimal one one seven I say. Normally
I get a thrill out of talking on the radio as if I know what Im
doing. Right now Im just trying to hang on. One two seven.
One seven, decimal six one three.
OK, I copy that. What are they doing?
Theyre in a meadow, down in the trees off the Prairie. They
seem to be staying there, waving at the plane.
Excellent. Well relay this to ground team.
Whoa, dizzy. Hastily I pull my airsick bag out of my sock, and open it
on my lap.
I am just able to push the microphone away from my mouth before throwing
up in the bag. Everything seems to be whirling as Don swoops the plane
in low and we head due west into the sun back across the Prairie. There
is almost nothing in my stomach, so it is just horrendous heave after
This is cool, I think. Now were going to find out what my stomach
does when Im airsick and we cant head back to the airport.
As we pass the green t-bar at the ski hill I crack
open an eye and see a bunch of adults with knapsacks getting out of cars.
Then the phones buzzing in my lap.
Hi Lynn, I say.
OK, she says, Ive talked to the RCMP, and they
relayed the coordinates to the ground team.
Excellent. We see what we think is a search party at the base of
the green t-bar.
Even as Im talking to Lynn, Im working with the background
rhythm of nausea that has emerged. Don is flying a racetrack pattern between
the ski lodge and the meadow. Theres the cool, soothing, eastbound
legmy stomach starts to feel better and I open my eyes. Its
a good time to talk. Then theres the turn over the ski hillI
barely feel this onebut then the sun is blasting in. I close my
eyes, theres choppy air, Im fighting nausea: steady, steady.
Finally a turn over Crater Lake, and then the worst partprepare
yourselfwere over the meadow where the girls are, so Don waves
the wings, first right then left. Its a nailbiter whether my stomach
can hold on here. Then smooth, level, cool flight east again and I start
to relax. The vent air blasting in my face, Don and Al chatting, keeping
an eye on the girls.
Looks like theyve moved over to the side of the clearing.
Ill bet the bugs are bad down there.
Yes, judging by the fact that were hitting a lot on the windshield
up here at six thousand feet.
I wish we could see where the searchers are.
Don uses the GPS to measure the distance from the t-bar to the meadow,
and calls flight service: Its about one kilometre, but you
may want to tell them to use a helicopter. Those ravines are pretty big.
Flight Service in turn relays a request to us to remain on station until
the ground crew meets up with the girls. And soon I hear Al saying, Oh,
theyre there, theyre there! Theyre meeting them!
He sounds really excited.
Theyve got to the girls?
Yep, they met them at the edge of the clearing.
Excellent. Head for home?
Head for home! says Don.
Ah sweet words.
Smithers, BC, July 2008
© Copyright 2008, Morgan Hite
This piece was originally published in
Northword April/May 2009