Under the hands of 8 Wing Commander Colonel Colin Keiver, a CC-130J Hercules aircraft circles an area 16 kilometres south of Canadian Forces Station Alert on June 14, 2016. Even on this beautiful sunny day, it is apparent this is no land to be messed with. Barren, snow-covered, and windswept – this is Canada’s most northern reaches. Add in darkness, blizzard conditions, and -30°C temperatures, and the feat of human survival becomes all that much more incredible.
“I can’t believe I spent more than 30 hours out here,” says Master Warrant Officer Tony Cobden as he looks out the small round window of the Hercules at the remnants of the CC-130 on the ground.
It was 25 years earlier when Master Warrant Officer Cobden, a communications researcher, and 17 others, were on board Boxtop Flight 22 when it crashed on final approach to CFS Alert during Operation Boxtop, the bi-annual resupply of the station. Logistics officer Captain Judy Trépanier, CANEX regional services manager Master Warrant Officer Tom Jardine, supply technician Warrant Officer Robert Grimsley and traffic technician Master Corporal Roland Pitre all died in the crash, while the aircraft’s commander, Captain John Couch, succumbed to hypothermia after leading the effort to survive in place, and giving up his coat to the other survivors.
Master Warrant Officer Cobden, the one survivor, still serving today in the Canadian Armed Forces, fittingly represents all those on Boxtop Flight 22 during what is preparatory work ahead of 25th Anniversary commemorations to be held more accessible in Trenton, Ontario, later this year. He is joined on this trip by fellow survivor Master Seaman (Ret’d) D.N. “Monty” Montgomery; search and rescue technician Sergeant Ben House, a member of the rescue team that parachuted into the crash site; and Lieutenant-Colonel (Ret’d) Scott McLean, the commanding officer of CFS Alert in 1991 who led the Station’s response to the accident, dispatching overland rescue crews, supporting the SAR response, and preparing for and receiving the dead and wounded.
It’s their first trip to the site since the crash.
Monty, who still lives with the physical effects of the crash, lost all his fingers and half his toes to frostbite, then endured 12 gruelling surgeries to graft some toes to his hand to restore some dexterity. “I can put my foot in my mouth faster than anyone!” he quips. “I don’t like to use the word ‘closure’ because it’s been 25 years,” he adds on a more serious note. “It’s hard, it’s difficult, but I can say, this sort of closes it for me.”
Led by Royal Canadian Air Force commander Lieutenant-General Mike Hood and RCAF Chief Warrant Officer Gerry Poitras, the contingent also includes 8 Wing, CFS Alert, CFS Leitrim and 435 Squadron personnel, and members of the search and rescue leadership.
“It’s a very personal thing for me, and I felt strongly about wanting to go there,” says Lieutenant-General Hood, who knew and worked with some of the members who died. “We’re going to honour the memory of some fantastic Canadians.”
The memorial cairn, designed by a team at 1 Canadian Air Division and the Engineering Section of Real Property Operation Detachment Trenton, was flown to CFS Alert and then slung via a CH-147 Chinook helicopter to the crash site in order to have the memorial dedicated at the sacred site. The 1,133-kilogram cairn, shaped like the tail of the Hercules where survivors huddled after the crash, will then be flown back to 8 Wing Trenton where it will be unveiled in the presence of family members of those who died, and survivors and rescuers, at a ceremony on or about October 30, 2016, the actual anniversary of the crash. The RCAF is contacting families, and survivors as planning for this event builds momentum.
MWO Cobden admits that being at the site and taking part in the ceremony made him emotional for the first time. “We did lose some lives here,” he says, his voice wavering. “I’m just happy I got the opportunity to be invited back to see it in person because it was dark then.”