A Canadian Forces Search and Rescue technician killed in a helicopter crash 30 years ago near Bella Coola was recently honoured with a ceremony.
Cpl. Phillip Young was part of a crew on the Canadian Forces Labrador helicopter searching for two lost hikers when it went down on April 30, 1992 above Hammer Lakes close to the Monarch Icefield.
Ray Hawkes, who divides his time between Quadra Island and the Bella Coola Valley where he has been a guide since the early 1990s, organized the ceremony, which took place the afternoon of Aug. 31, 2022.
Three Bella Coola residents were part of the search – Roger Harris, Douglas Baker and Andy Schmidt.
“The day before we found some tracks above Hammer Lakes on an air search,” Baker recalled of that fateful day.
“We were part of PEP – the provincial emergency program – back then.”
With a plan to go back into the area on April 30 on skis, Baker, Young, Schmidt, and Tony Isaacs another CF SAR tech headed out.
Roger Harris drove the four of them up the Nusatsum Forest Service Road about 25 kilometres near where the Odeguard Falls Trail is.
There was a snow slide across the road, which Bakers said is normal at that time of year, and they couldn’t get past so they put the skis on their packs and started walking.
“We turned left on the Hammer Lakes Trail and started heading up there. When we got into snow we put our skis on and started skinning up and were heading toward the area where the tracks would have been still visible.”
When the party arrived up at a particular knoll, the weather was deteriorating and Young and Isaacs called for the Labrador helicopter that was in the area searching to come and get them.
Baker said there were no more signs to follow of where the hikers had headed.
It was in the process of picking the crew up that the chopper failed.
“Andy and I were the first to be winched up.,” Baker said.
“Cpl. Phil Young was next with all four sets of skis. We were walking around inside the chopper. Phil just got in, tossed all the skis on the floor of the chopper when the engine failed. I remember hearing the sound at the back.”
Attempts to hover exit out and land the chopper somewhere were not possible because it was not high enough off the ground.
Young was thrown out, Isaacs was still on the ground at that point, and Baker, Schmidt, and Harris who were in the helicopter went with it as it crashed and rolled about six times down the hill until it came to a rest upside down.
“I managed to escape through the back hatch that popped open,” Baker said. “The crew and searchers had various injuries, from cuts, burns and bruises to more serious non-life threatening injuries. We got out and tried to throw big hunks of snow on the burning fuel pod. It was a dramatic scene.”
A second Labrador helicopter was in the valley and when the beacon went off indicating the first one had gone down, the crew headed out from the Bella Coola airport to the site.
“They found us there scrambling to put the injured in a tent. We didn’t know if we would be there overnight. I was lucky to be a walking wounded,” Baker said.
Describing it as a ‘miracle of miracles’ Baker said the second chopper hovered for about 50 minutes and picked up everyone, including several on stretchers.
There were hanging beds inside the chopper, people were on IVs.
“Every time somebody came up they were tended to. I was amazed and impressed when I got inside. The SAR crews are truly skilled.”
From the site the helicopter flew back to Bella Coola, landing in the school yard next to the hospital.
Originally a concrete cairn and a plaque were installed at the crash site on July 7, 1993, but Hawkes felt since then Young had been forgotten.
“This could have been any one of us,” he said. “He was the last to get in the Lab. It was horrendous. The other three received injuries of varying degrees. It’s never really been talked about or commemorated for all this time.”
Young was 29 years old when he died, leaving behind his wife and a one-year-old son.
As for the lost hikers – Joseph Robert Kovacs, 33, and his wife Jennifer Diane Kovacs, 23, of Burnaby – they were found several months later on Mt. Dagon, 60 kilometres southeast of Bella Coola
A coroner’s report, dated Aug. 12, 1992, noted the Kovacs were caught in a snow avalanche as the cause of death.
Schmidt said it was a complicated search involving the RCMP, the military because Joseph Kovacs was in the military, and PEP.
The active search was wrapped up at the end of May, early June and Jennifer’s parents Carmen and Winnie Cardona came out from Ontario and took up residence in Bella Coola to continue searching.
It was during a flyover, which they had been doing with a private airplane with their own finances, that Jennifer’s mom spotted the Kovacs’ tent one day in August 1992, Schmidt said.
Inside the tent was a diary and it noted where the Kovacs planned to go the next day and that information led to finding their bodies a week later, Schmidt said.
The Kovacs were climbers and had come to the icefields to ski and traverse and climb, Schmidt added.
Motivated to plan the memorial, Hawkes broke it into two segments.
He did a solo climb in Young’s name in the morning up the northwest side of Mt. Saugstad and organized a ceremony in the afternoon to install a new commemorative post at 5,900 feet.
“It was an amazing day,” Hawkes said of the day he climbed, noting he got picked off the top by Richard Lapointe, a pilot with West Coast Helicopters.
“Richard was working for the DND [Department of National Defence] as a pilot and was down at the joint rescue centre in Victoria the day of the crash,” Hawkes said. “He picked up the emergency locator beacon of the downed Labrador.”
After the climb, Hawkes was transported down to the base where the helicopter flew everybody back up to the site and they searched for the original cairn.
When the group located it they raised the commemorative post, which Hawkes made with an eight-foot long piece of cedar.
He stained it, added flags and badges and had Cpl. Phillip Young’s name engraved on it as well as the DND SAR technician motto “that others may live.”
Bella Coola Valley Search and Rescue president Trevor Provost also attended the ceremony and said it was important to honour Young.
“People make sacrifices searching for people and to give up a life like that deserves our utmost respect.”
Hawkes said everyone in the Bella Coola Valley remembers where they were the day of the crash.
“It had a big impact. Not only for Phil’s family but for the community of Bella Coola that was heavily impacted – the hospital staff, the civilian searchers and their families.”
Schmidt and Jason Gunderson, a member of the Canadian Rangers Bella Coola Unit, also attended the ceremony.
Baker said Roger Harris would have liked to attend but was unavailable.
As for Baker, he said the loss of Young was very tragic.
“Although I don’t think I’ve cried much since the crash, I sure did at the ceremony. I’m grateful to still be here, but I’m very sad for the Young and Kovacs families.”
Schmidt said he appreciated the ceremony as a “sober consideration of the gravity of the incident where someone lost his life, and a couple of people were profoundly maimed.”
“I had a fractured back and most of us were contused and lacerated and it took some time to recover. Another man, Al Banky – had a serious arm injury and was permanently impacted.”
Schmidt said the group cleaned up the original bronze commemorative plaque at the cairn and everybody had respectful things to say in recollection of the day.
Aside from thanking West Coast Helicopters for the flights, Hawkes also thanked the Solstice Recreation Group for coordinating the event.