Adventure and travel writing

Tactical Helicopter Insertion, by Steve Van Bakel


It was a hot summer night and I had my paramedic response unit parked down by the river watching the lucky people who were enjoying the nice weather as opposed to working.  I longed to be out rollerblading or biking along the river pathway, but I still had to suffer through one more night of working the downtown streets of Calgary before I could enjoy some days off.

I was deep into self-pity about being stuck at work when the TAC phone rang.  "TEMS, Steve speaking," I said into the phone, hoping that maybe a good TAC call would bring some excitement to my night.

"Hey, we're doing some helicopter insertion training tonight, want to come and play?" one of the TAC members asked me.

"Hell, yes!" I said, trying unsuccessfully not to sound too excited.  "Name the time and the place and I will be there!"

After getting all the details I had just enough time to grab a quick bite to eat before meeting the TAC team at our training site on the outskirts of the city. During the training for my spot on the TEMS (Tactical Emergency Medical Support) Team, we had been told about tactical insertion using the police helicopter. The goal here was to get the TAC team onto the roof of a high-rise building so that they were in a position to execute an assault as needed.

While working as a medic in the military, I had many opportunities to train and fly on helicopters.  Including the time my buddies talked the pilots into taking me on a birthday flight with the sole intention of making me throw up.  The pilots practiced their contour flying skills, which is done at a very low altitude and follows the contours of the land.  Dipping down into valleys and then shooting up over the ridge at the last second.  Throw in a couple of maneuvers where we hit zero gravity and I was floating in my seat, and I found myself the closest I've ever been to tossing my cookies without actually doing it.  Had I known they were trying to make me throw up, I would have just done it and gotten it over with.  But I didn't want to look like the wimp and I held it in long enough that the pilots later admitted that they tried everything to make me throw up, but I just wouldn't do it.  As I drove out to meet the TAC team at the training site, I wondered if this was going to be another one of those incidents where I was going to be trying not to throw up the whole time.  

As I arrived at the training area, I found a half dozen TAC members hanging around their vehicles.  The seventh member was standing in the field preparing the landing zone for the police helicopter that I could see coming in from the north.  I parked my vehicle by the others and jumped out to join the group watching the helicopter coming in for a landing.

I've always loved that rhythmical beating sound of large helicopter blades beating the air, getting louder and louder as the helicopter approached. This time my heart picked up pace to match the beating of the blades because I knew that when the helicopter left, I would be standing on the skids.  I used to find it exhilarating to ride in the helicopter with the doors open but this was going to bring a whole new meaning to thrill ride.

The co-pilot jumped out of his seat and did a crouching run to where the wide-eyed group of TAC members stood.  He informed us the pilot was going to keep the helicopter running while he gave us a quick safety briefing.  This would save time so that both groups of TAC members were able to participate before they got called away on an event.  The briefing seemed far too short considering the task we were about to take on but before I knew it the co-pilot was leading the first team of four back to helicopter.  I took up the rear of that group, following in a very low crouch because at six-foot-four, I always worry about those spinning blades making me a head shorter.  

I jumped on the skid right behind the co-pilot and had barely got my safety lanyard hooked up when the pilot turned looking for a thumbs up that we were all set to go.  It all happened so fast that I didn't even have time to be nervous before I felt the helicopter lift off and race towards the city's skyline.  The wind blowing in my face was much like that of being on a motorcycle with no windscreen so I was thankful for my goggles.  I had a white knuckled grip with the one hand I was able to hold on with and I made frequent checks to make sure my safety lanyard was indeed still connected.  

The pilot took us for a harrowing ride sweeping around the Calgary tower and then zigzagging the downtown skyscrapers before heading to our final destination.  Our target was city hall where we were to quickly disembark the helicopter and conduct an assault exercise while the helicopter went back to grab the second group.  We were still a good seven hundred feet up when the pilot signaled for us to remove our safety lanyard and prepare to unload.  I had the impression the helicopter would land on the roof to let us off, but instead the pilot nosed up to the edge of the building and only placed the very tip of the skids on the building.  We did a combination off sidestep, crouch, and hop to make it to solid footing on the rooftop.

We heard the helicopter coming back for us just as we completed our assault exercise. Getting back on the skids once the helicopter was in position required the same type of maneuver.  However, this time it was a little more nerve racking because we were stepping from the security of the rooftop to the skid that was hanging precariously over the edge of the building. It only took seconds to get the second team of TAC members off the helicopter and our team back on before the pilot took off as we jostled to get our safety lanyards attached.  

The sun had started to set while we were conducting our assault training so the sky was various shades of red, orange and blue as we headed back.  This gave a whole new meaning to flying off into the sunset.  I still remember the smile on my face as I hung comfortably on the outside of the helicopter as it raced across the sky back to our training area.  I had to remind myself, that just like on a motorcycle without a windscreen, you had to be careful about smiling too much or you would end up with your teeth full of bugs. 


It's been many years since this great adventure but I can tell you that every time I recount the event it brings the same ear-to-ear smile back to my face. I'm not sure if I will ever be able to outdo this adventure but it has certainly set a high standard for me to beat.