By Andrea Arnold
McBride resident Steve Brabant served as a pilot in the Canadian Air Force for 33 years, from 1980-2013. His father was also in the Air Force and was a firefighter. As he was growing up, the younger Brabant had wanted to fly Search and Rescue helicopters, but when he enlisted at the age of 22, he was among the masses that didn’t get to do exactly what they had set out to do, but he did get to fly.
“I was not the oldest recruit that year, nor was I the youngest,” he said. “At that time, only one in a thousand applicants made it all the way through the application process.”
The first 12 years of Brabant’s service fell within the Cold War. He was put to work flying CP-140 Aurora long range maritime patrol aircraft. The primary jobs of these planes was to provide overhead surveillance, looking for and tracking soviet submarines.
“Airplanes scare subs,” said Brabant. “They are hard to detect. Two planes worked together to provide continuous coverage of the area. Each plane would spend six hours monitoring before flying back.”
Brabant and his crews used several methods to locate subs. The Aurora’s each had a stinger that used magnetic properties to detect the hull of the sub. They were equipped with sonobuoys hydrophone listening devices. These devices were dropped into the water around an area where a sub was suspected. Ping like sounds were emitted from the buoys and would bounce off a sub if there was one in the area. They were able to move the buoys using scuttle control to either follow a sub in motion or to locate one.
“If the sonobuoys were dropped too close to a sub, the sound would be detected by crews,” said Brabant. “Other factors had to be considered such as other sounds in the area and the distance from the suspected location of the sub.”
There were occasions when the crew was sent north from Vancouver Island towards Alaska. One of these trips started out normal and the plane took off high above the fishing boats that lined the north end of the island. Brabant said the crew was settling into the flight and about to have breakfast when his observer called out.
“He said that the rest of us might think he was crazy, but he thought he could see a periscope feather in the water four miles below.”
The feather is the mark in the water left behind by a moving object. The featherlike wake lines from the boats movement below, spread over a larger angle that the one the observer had spotted. Brabant agreed that it was worth checking out.
“We dropped down to get closer and the feather disappeared indicating that it had in fact been a sub, and they had realized they had been spotted,” said Brabant. “Breakfast was forgotten as the crew scrambled to drop sonobuoys and we spent the next five hours tracking the sub.”
Throughout his years he not only worked surveillance. As the threat of the Cold War lessened, the Air Force was used to patrol the waters looking for smuggling operations and fishing boats that operated with expired licenses or those polluting the waters. They also worked on search and rescue operations.
“These were the most satisfying,” said Brabant. “Even though they were not alway successful.”
One of his favourite experiences was during one of these rescues.
During one of his tours based out of Comox BC, Brabant was called on to navigate his plane through a raging storm in the middle of the night to locate a capsized 45-foot sailboat off the north end of Vancouver Island.
“It had been rolled by a rogue wave,” said Brabant. “There were three people on board.”
They were able to locate the boat, but were unable to perform the rescue. They connected with an US Coast Guard helicopter that was close by on route to Alaska.
“We were able to vector the helicopter to the boat and provided illuminating flares allowing the helicopter to rescue the people using a rescue swimmer.”
As a pilot, Brabant had to maintain a level of calm regardless of the situation.
“It was my job to keep the crew alive,” he said. “I had to stay focused no matter what was going on.”
Although he never directly experienced a crash, he recalls an incident that was one of the hardest things he had to work through during his career. He was working out of the Greenwood base in Nova Scotia. A helicopter hit the water killing three of the seven people on board.
“I was the acting Wing Commander at the time,” said Brabant. “After the process of initial response, I helped look after and support the families.”
In the last five years of service, Brabant served as an Air Division Flight Safety Officer. He taught approximately 700 students using information he had gathered from investigating crashes.
He loved serving. During more than three decades of flying, he never once thought of early retirement. He met and married his wife Barb within the first 10 years of service. She had also been raised in a military family and together the two travelled as he served at posts coast to coast. He had repeat tours of duty on either coast as well as several at locations across the country.
“It was my career,” said Brabant. “I, and we, were enjoying the life and the work.”
His favourite aspect of the job was working with the people around him.
“They were highly trained professionals who deeply care about what they do and about Canada.”
As the couple was faced with another transfer during Brabant’s 32nd year of service, he made the decision to retire.
“We were in Winnipeg, about to be transferred back to Ottawa. I had three more years before I reached the 35 year mark and retired. I requested a one year extension and finished out my service in Winnipeg after 33 years.”
He retired from the service with a rank of Lieutenant Colonel almost 10 years ago. As the couple were looking for a place to settle, they were drawn to McBride as it was a new part of the country for them.
“Everything lined up,” said Brabant. “We came out to look and see, and we found a home. It is a friendly town with good people.”
Brabant highly recommends the military as a career. There are so many different job opportunities within the service. If an individual is willing to learn the job that is assigned to them, and learn to do it well, then the career will be an enjoyable one, he says.