Arctic & Northern Aviation
Canadian Forces Station Alert is the most northern permanently inhabited place in the world. It keeps signals intelligence facilities to support Canadian Armed Forces military operations. CFS Alert also has technology to detect the location of objects of interest, including High Frequency and Direction Finding (HFDF). It supports search and rescue and other operations with this technology. CFS Alert also supports Environment and Climate Change Canada and Arctic researchers. Further, it plays a key role in Canada's surveillance and control of its Northern territories and approaches.
On October 30, 1991, at approximately 4:40 p.m., Flight 22 of Operation Boxtop - as the biannual resupply mission to CFS Alert is called - was on its final approach to the station from Thule Air Force Base in Greenland. As CC-130 Hercules 130322 from 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron, loaded with 3,400 litres of diesel fuel, began its descent, the pilot flying lost sight of the runway.
Moments later, radar contact and communication were lost as the aircraft crashed approximately 16 kilometres south of the station. The crew of another CC-130 Hercules, also bound for Alert, saw the fires of the crash and identified the location of Boxtop 22.
The crash took the lives of five Canadian Armed Forces members - four died in the crash and one perished before help arrived - and led to the boldest and most massive air disaster rescue mission ever undertaken by the Canadian military in the High Arctic. Thirteen lives were saved.
Within a half hour of the rescue call, a Hercules carrying 12 search and rescue technicians from 440 Search and Rescue Squadron in Edmonton, Alberta, was in the air. It reached the crash site seven and a half hours later, but the SAR technicians couldn't descend due to the weather. Another Hercules from 413 Search and Rescue Squadron in Greenwood, Nova Scotia, soon joined the search. Meanwhile, search and rescue technicians formed a ground rescue team at Alert and set out overland for the crash site, guided through the darkness and horrendous weather conditions by a Hercules.
The survivors, some soaked in diesel fuel, endured high winds and temperatures between -20°C and -30°C. Many sheltered in the tail section of the downed aircraft but others were more exposed to the elements.
Finally, the 413 Squadron team finally got a break in the weather and six SAR technicians parachuted into the site more than 32 hours after the crash and began looking for survivors. They were joined soon after by more SAR technicians. When the ground rescue team finally arrived, 21 hours after it had set out, 26 rescuers were on the ground. They warmed and treated the injured and prepared them for medical evacuation. A Twin Huey helicopter from Alert made three trips to bring the survivors back to the station.
In addition to search and rescue crews from 413 Search and Rescue Squadron, 435 Transport Squadron and 440 Search and Rescue Squadron, a MAJAID (major air disaster) Hercules was dispatched from Edmonton, carrying a medical team and supplies.
Labrador helicopters set out from 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron in Trenton, Ontario, 103 Rescue Unit in Gander, Newfoundland, and 413 Squadron. And three Auroras came from 415 and 405 Maritime Patrol Squadrons in Greenwood to provide the Labradors with "top cover" and to provide navigational aid.
As part of the MAJAID plan, a Twin Huey helicopter was loaded into a Hercules from Edmonton for the evacuation of casualties from the crash site to Alert. As well, American aircraft and crews from Elmendorf, Alaska, assisted where they could in the rescue and evacuation.
Other Hercs from 436 and 429 Transport Squadrons, already in the Arctic for the same resupply mission as the downed aircraft, were later used to move casualties between Alert and Thule, Greenland. And some Hercs, plus a Challenger aircraft from 412 Transport Squadron in Ottawa, flew casualties from Thule back to Edmonton, Ottawa and Trenton.
Back at home, 442 Search and Rescue Squadron resources from Comox, British Columbia, covered Edmonton's SAR area in case of another emergency and 424 Squadron SAR technicians from Trenton augmented 413 Squadron in Greenwood.
The downed Hercules remains at the crash site to this day, preserved by the desert-like Arctic conditions. A memorial at the site was dedicated in June 1993.
The crash toll
- Captain John Couch, pilot, 435 Transport Squadron, Edmonton, Alberta
- Captain Judy Trépanier, logistics officer, Canadian Forces Communication Command Headquarters, Ottawa, Ontario
- Master Warrant Officer Tom Jardine, regional services manager CANEX, Canadian Forces Base Trenton, Ontario
- Warrant Officer Robert Grimsley, supply technician, Canadian Forces Communication Command Headquarters, Ottawa
- Master Corporal Roland Pitre, traffic technician, 435 Squadron
- Robert Thomson, civilian, Canadian Forces Base Trenton
- Susan Hillier, civilian, Canadian Forces Base Trenton
- Captain Richard Dumoulin, logistics officer, Canadian Forces Communication Command Headquarters
- Captain Wilma DeGroot, doctor, Canadian Forces Base Trenton
- Lieutenant Joe Bales, pilot, 435 Squadron
- Lieutenant Mike Moore, navigator, 435 Squadron
- Master Warrant Officer Marc Tremblay, supply technician, Canadian Forces Communication Command Headquarters
- Sergeant Paul West, flight engineer, 435 Squadron
- Master Corporal Tony Cobden, communications researcher, 770 Communication Research Squadron, Gander, Newfoundland
- Master Corporal David Meace, radio technician, 1 Canadian Division Headquarters and Signal Squadron, Canadian Forces Base Kingston, Ontario
- Master Corporal Mario Ellefsen, communications researcher, Canadian Forces Station Leitrim, Ottawa
- Master Seaman "Monty" Montgomery, communications researcher, Canadian Forces Station Leitrim
- Private Bill Vance, communications researcher, Canadian Forces Station Leitrim
Casualties from the crash of the Boxtop 22 Hercules are carefully removed from the 412 Squadron Challenger that carried them from Thule, Greenland. The casualties were then taken for treatment to the National Defence Medical Centre in Ottawa. Photo by Corporal Steve Leaham.
The crashed Boxtop 22 Hercules aircraft rests on the Arctic tundra to this day. Photo by Jill St. Marseille.
The Boxtop 22 monument, photographed in August 2010, was dedicated in June 1993. Photo by Jill St. Marseille.
A closer view of the plaque on the monument. Photo by Jill St. Marseille.
In April 2008, six search and rescue technicians from 14 Wing Greenwood, Nova Scotia, participated in a two-week survival course near CFS Alert. During their time on Ellesmere Island, the team honoured the memory and heroism of those who died in the October 1991 crash.
In January 2015, Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada David Johnston laid a wreath at the Boxtop 22 memorial. In the background are the graves of nine men who died during the crash of a Lancaster aircraft in 1950. Photo by Sergeant Ronald Duchesne.