Mark Vokey no stranger to dan­ger

Spa­niard’s Bay na­tive, fel­low air­men, rec­og­nized for role in dar­ing res­cue

The Compass - - FRONT PAGE - BY TERRYROBERTS

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.”

Out­stand­ing courage

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.

Dire sit­u­a­tion

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.

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