Mark Vokey no stranger to danger
Spaniard’s Bay native, fellow airmen, recognized for role in daring rescue
There’s been plenty of memorable and adrenaline-pumping moments in the life of Mark Vokey in recent months. Considering his job as a search and rescue technician with the Royal Canadian Air Force, that’s not hard to fathom.
He’s just as likely to be seen hanging by a cable below a Cormorant search and rescue helicopter as he is sitting behind the wheel of his family vehicle.
But the one moment that stands out for this accomplished and tenacious Spaniard’s Bay native? Shaking the hand of one of the most famous aviators of all time, American astronaut Jim Lovell, on Oct. 23. Lovell is best known as the commander of the Appollo 13 mission in 1970, which, despite suffering a critical failure during its f light to the moon, was returned safely to earth. He is also the first person to have flown in space four times.
What’s more, the encounter between Vokey and Lovell took place in one of the world’s best-known cities, London, England, and in one of its most historic and fascinating buildings, the medieval Guildhall, the city’s ceremonial and administrative centre.
The Duke of York, Prince Andrew, was also in attendance. And oh yes, it didn’t hurt that a spotlight was shining brightly on Vokey and four of his fellow Canadian airmen that evening.
“It was quite an impressive event,” Vokey said during a recent interview. “I couldn’t help but feel under-dressed for the evening.”
It all happened at a gathering of an organization called the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators, also known as GAPAN.
One of the highlights came when Lovell was presented with the prestigous Guild Award of Honour, but the final award of the evening — The Prince Philip Helicopter Rescue Award — went to the crew of Rescue 912, which included Master Cpl. Mark Vokey.
The award was presented to the crew by Lovell, and it was the highlight of Vokey’s evening.
“Many of the foremost figures in aviation from all over the world were present,” Vokey recalled. “All of them put together seemed to pale in comparison to the achievement that Mr. Lovell pulled off in 1970.
“It was an honour to meet him, and receive our award from him.”
The Prince Philip Award goes to a helicopter crew or individual member of that crew for an act of outstanding courage or devotion to duty in the course of land or sea search and rescue operations.
For the crew of Rescue 912, that outstanding act of courage occurred on Feb. 9, during a daring nighttime rescue of three bird hunters in Indian Arm, Bonavista Bay. The three men had become stranded in their 16-foot aluminum boat after it was engulfed in sea ice, with a full-on winter blizzard slamming the region.
After some 20 hours exposed to the harshest of elements, the situation was looking dire for the three hunters.
Shortly after 9 p.m., the crew of Rescue 912, based at 103 Search and Rescue Squadron in Gander, was tasked to attempt a rescue. What followed was a mission that tested every aspect of their training, and pushed the CH-149 Cormorant helicopter and its crew to their limits.
With winds gusting up to 80 kilometres per hour, some 40 centimetres of snow accumulating, and the added challenges posed by the topography of Indian Arm, including severe turbulence off 100-metre hills, precise co-ordination among the crew was paramount.
And that’s exactly what happened on this night. On at least two occasions, said Vokey, the aircraft commander came close to calling off the mission. When visibility and aircraft handling became increasingly difficult, the pilots did something completely unconventional by turning the aircraft 180 degrees and flying backwards for the final few kilometres.
“The most harrowing part of it had to do with how we got to the scene,” Vokey explained.
“For us in the back, we were very cognizant we were a part of something challenging. But most of the acute pressure was on the pilot at that point.”
Once over the stranded hunters, Vokey was lowered down, assessed their conditions and had them hoisted into the chopper. It was textbook, despite some very hazardous conditions.
“We were able to not get taken up in the whole scenario. We had the ability to remain calm and provide the guidance and assistance the front end needed to get the job done,” he noted. “Once on scene, it was almost as if all the hard work was done. I just let my years of training kick in, and it was a matter of speed and precision.”
The hunters were “quite medically fine” at the time of rescue, but Vokey is not sure they could have made it through the night.
“It was a challenging, interesting and very worthwhile rescue for us,” Vokey said. “But yet the patients were healthy enough to be uninjured, require no long-term care, and at the end of the day all crew and patients were happy and home with their families.”
A humble hero
The rescue captured provincewide media attention, with one search and rescue expert describing it as “one of the most daring of all time.”
But for Vokey and his crewmates that night, it was all in a day’s work.
“I’m confident … that any search and rescue crew on the helicopter would have handled it in a very similar way,” said Vokey. “It’s through the luck of the draw I happened to be on that night.”
“Even though I’m very proud of the actions of the crew, I feel, by extension, proud of the whole SAR outfit, because I know we would have all responded in kind and did a spectacular job.”
The Prince Philip Award was one of a handful of accolades given to Rescue 912 for their exploits that night.
Vokey and two other members of the crew were in Saskatoon earlier in October to receive The Mynarsky Award from the Royal Canadian Air Force Association. The award is named in honour of Victoria Cross winner Andy Mynarski, who gave his life during the Second World War attempting to help rescue a trapped crew member.
The crew also won this year’s Cormorant Trophy from AgustaWestland, the company that manufactures the aircraft.
The attention is nice, but it’s not what Vokey and his mates seek out when they take off on a mission. It’s actually not something they are comforable with.
“We do it 50 times and nobody knows your name. It’s almost embarrassing when something is pointed out as extraordinary,” said Vokey. From army to air Vokey spent nine years in the infantry before transferring to the air force some five years ago. He made the decision following two tours in Afghanistan at the height of Canada’s involvement in that wartorn country. He served his second tour while his wife, Christina, was pregnant with their first child.
With a young family to consider, and a strong likelihood of a third tour in the offing, Vokey said the decision was an easy one, though he does not regret his time in the army.
“I loved my time in the infantry. I was not kicking and screaming to get out,” he said.
But he wanted an occupation more conducive to a family environment, though he wasn’t ready to slow down. That’s why he was drawn to search and rescue. Vokey has always been one to take on great challenges, going back to his days as an undersized minor hockey and junior hockey player.
“That’s Mark’s story: working his way to get in, having to prove himself, and then showing himself to be successful,” said Mark’s father, retired teacher Keith Vokey.
“He has distinguished himself pretty good,” Keith added.
As a SAR tech, Mark’s times away from home are in shorter increments, and he rarely ventures outside of Canada.
There’s still a risk element to his job, but he said it’s more rewarding to be lending a hand to fellow Canadians in need.
“There’s something gratifying about the potential of helping somebody who lives in your community,” he said.