The search area for a missing Kapuskasing couple and their helicopter has been narrowed down.
Nicole and Jody Blais were last seen Monday, March 4 around 7 p.m. leaving Sudbury via helicopter. They didn’t arrive at their destination, a hangar in Fauquier.
The missing helicopter is a grey Robinson R66 with white and orange trim.
Yesterday, the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) Trenton and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) declared a major search and rescue operation. This allows for more Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA) personnel and assets to help with the search.
Aircraft flew the entire flight path from Sudbury to Timmins, which is about 108 nautical miles and over 4,000 square miles, yesterday.
Search master Capt. Martin Zimmer said the search area is now from Timmins to Fauquier.
Cell phone technology was key in narrowing down the area.
Zimmer said they’ve been working with OPP technicians and identified two towers that were talking to the cell phone.
Based on that information, he is confident the helicopter made it at least to Timmins.
“What that means is our last known position now has moved from Sudbury to Timmins, so our overall search area has been decreased now to about a third of the distance,” he said. “We’re going to be able to saturate that area even more with the aircraft we have, so if the weather holds out we’re hoping to complete that as well.”
Work with the OPP technicians is ongoing.
“We’re basically graphing where all the towers are, which ones were talking to the phone and we’re trying to get an indication of actually not only where the last communication was with the phone, but is there a track or a trend so we can kind of say OK he was going to the northwest or to the north and that’s what my team is working on at this moment. We’re pretty excited and optimistic that we’re actually getting some good information, so we’re hoping that we can find them today, but we’ll keep working hard,” said Zimmer.
The family has been organizing ground searches via snowmobile.
Headquarters is working closely with the family to co-ordinate with them on the ground efforts, as well as with private aircraft they’ve hired.
“We’re trying to deconflict so that everything is safe. At the same time, we contacted the OPP emergency response team and they have a search master to deal with ground searches and that’s been embedded into our search headquarters as well,” he said.
The OPP ground search team has also been requested.
With today’s snow, weather is challenge.
“Obviously, visibility is decreased. Right now most of our aircraft are either operating at 500 feet or 1,000 feet with a one-mile visibility, we have that right now so we’re monitoring,” he said.
Aircraft from across the RCAF and other government departments are being used, including:
• two CC-130 Hercules aircraft and two CH-146 Griffon Helicopters from 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron, 8 Wing Trenton
• a CC-130 Hercules from 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron, 17 Wing Winnipeg
• a CH-146 Griffon Helicopter from 439 Combat Support Squadron, 3 Wing Bagotville
• a CP-140 Aurora from 405 Long Range Patrol Squadron, 14 Wing Greenwood
• a Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) helicopter, and a CASARA aircraft
The Aurora is equipped with different sensors, and Zimmer said it flew the flight path yesterday.
“It did pick up a lot of metallic objects such as snowmobiles and personnel out on ice huts and so on, it did not pick up anything related to our object that we’re looking for,” he said.
The maritime aircraft returned to its home base after helping with the investigation.
It is en route to Timmins again today, where it will likely be used as an on-scene commander.
“The Aurora is a great platform for that because it can go up high and talk to everybody, it has all the crew members on board that can monitor each search area that we give them, where they are and keep track of our search aircraft. They’ll be in to do that and if we believe that we still require some more passes with the sensors then we can incorporate that this afternoon too,” he said.
The number of personnel working out of the headquarters at the Timmins Victor M. Power Airport has increased to 79, whereas before it was 50. That includes 15 people from CASARA and two Coast Guard members, with the remainder being military.
In yesterday’s search, 11 aircraft were in the air for more than 70 hours and 21 different flights.
If the Blais’ aren’t found today, Zimmer said they’ll continue searching tomorrow.
“We’re progressing so well now that we’re very confident that we’re in the next day or two hopefully going to find them,” he said.
People in the search area are still being asked not to fly drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
If you've seen a helicopter matching the description or have seen signs of a possible crash site, members of the public can call 705-268-2608 ext. 234.