Members of the Canadian military walk past communication towers for Iqaluit as they search the Arctic during an exercise in Iqaluit, Nunavut, on August 24, 2009.
OTTAWA - The Canadian military wants to expand search-and-rescue coverage in the Arctic, but is looking to private contractors and civilian volunteers to fill the ranks.
The fatal crash this summer of First Air Flight 6560 and the recent death of a rescue technician last month — both in Nunavut — dramatically underscored the dilemma the government faces in responding to northern emergencies.
Experts have repeatedly warned the opening up of the Arctic will make cases like those more common.
The notion of beefing up search coverage in the Arctic, where the military has little year-round presence, has been under active discussion for over a year, according to briefing documents prepared for the country's top military commander.
Contrary to popular perception, finding lost hikers and downed aircraft in the vast tracts of wilderness in southern Canada is not exclusively the domain of the military.
For over a quarter century it has relied on a group of dedicated, trained civilian volunteers who come complete with their own aircraft. The military provides them with spotter training and some equipment.
The Civil Air Search and Rescue Association — or CASARA — makes up about 25 per cent of the country's air search capability.
The military is hoping to replicate CASARA in the North, a briefing note for Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walt Natynczyk indicated last November.
Using civilian contractors "represents a measured, economical" improvement to rescue capabilities in the North, but more importantly it delivers more "timely" searches pending the arrival of military aircraft and helicopters from the south.
Maj. Jay Nelles, of the Air Force's readiness branch, says response times — or at least the ability to get to incident sites — would be greatly enhanced.
The inability to deliver "rapid response" to a northern incident is the kind of stuff that gives military planners nightmares. In some cases, it takes hours to get an aircraft into the region and that's even before a search can get underway.
In the case of the Oct. 27 death of Sgt. Janik Gilbert, initial reports said it took three hours for a Cormorant helicopter to arrive after a boat of missing hunters was located and rescue technicians had entered the frigid waters west of Baffin Island.
Still, having a dedicated civilian search arm in the north might not have saved Gilbert.
The CASARA-North proposal is mostly geared to fixed-wing aircraft and the absence of helicopters in the Arctic is something the military would still grappling with.
In southern Canada, there is easy access to a fleet of recreation planes, where 2,500 pilots, navigators and trained spotters make up the backbone of the civilian search association. It is a different story in the thinly populated north, where aircraft tend to be owned by commercial interests.
The Northern Air Transport Association has been trying, on behalf of the Air Force, to encourage companies to charter their aircraft — at market rates — to National Defence for emergencies.
Nelles said they've met with some success, but the biggest challenge has been finding qualified spotters to volunteer among northern communities.
It costs Ottawa about $2.8 million a year to fund civilian search and rescue in southern regions and there is no current estimate on how much an expansion in the north would be.
Aircraft Maintenance Engineer on de Havilland Dash-8-100, Airbus A320, and Embraer 190 series aircraft; private pilot; owner of a Quad City Challenger II ultralight airplane; Canadian Aviation Historical Society member; Civil Air Search and Rescue Association pilot