To The Rescue

Alberton native 10842 Col. Rick Hardy saved upwards of 100 people in a distinguished career as a search and rescue pilot with the Canadian military for two decades.

Energetic 73-year-old Betty Hardy has plenty of cause to be proud of her son, Rick, who has had an impressive career as a search and rescue pilot with the military.

In 1987, Col. Rick Hardy, received from U.S. president Ronald Reagan the United States Air Medal for a meritorious SAR mission. This was the second time he received the medal.

Alberton native Col. Rick Hardy amassed an impressive record of search and rescue (SAR) missions as a pilot with the Canadian military from 1978 to 1996.

He clocked roughly 5,000 hours, mostly at the controls of a helicopter, but also with plenty of adventures flying airplanes.

"Maybe 75 to 100 people I've saved, I guess,'' he said matter-of-factly. "Some people have said thanks. Most don't.''

That's not to say his work has gone unnoticed.

During his tour with the United States Coast Guard flying the HH-3F Pelican helicopter, Hardy twice received the United States Air Medal for meritorious SAR missions.

The second Air Medal, awarded for the rescue of 37 Russian sailors from their freighter floundering in a severe Atlantic Ocean storm, was presented to Hardy at the White House by President Ronald Reagan in March 1987.

"They told me when I was interviewed (the story made big news on P.E.I. and across Canada), after Reagan decorated me, that I'm the only member of the Canadian Forces ever to have been decorated by an American president,'' he said.

"Now that is kind of neat. I mean it's a kid's daydream.''

In fact, Hardy, 49, who recently was given the nod as Canadian Defence attache to Norway, started eyeing the sky as a great potential workplace when he was just a kid.

"I had an epiphany when I was 12,'' he said.

"I came home from school one day and a great, big honking red, white and blue helicopter landed beside our house (which was located next to a hospital) . . . It was a great, big, huge helicopter and I remember I was in the kitchen with my mom and I said 'that's what I want to do. That would be really neat.' ''

He was, by his own description, an unremarkable child setting his sights on a remarkable career.

"I guess I was about as typical an Islander as you could possibly be,'' he said.

Hardy was a middle-of-the-pack student, had a newspaper route for several years, and helped his father, the late Wesley Hardy, in the family's general store.

He also played hockey, lacing up for junior 'B' games with the West Prince Junior Bears, which later became the Maroons.

"We weren't very good and we fought a lot,'' he said as he chugged coffee in his Cascumpec home on a second floor balcony that overlooks Mill River.

"I was really aggressive all 132 pounds of me. I was almost six feet and 132 pounds . . . I lost every fight I was in.''

But he would win a hard-fought battle to live out his childhood dream.

Hardy initially saw little future with the shrinking Canadian Forces as a prevailing anti-military sentiment was being fuelled by the strong public outcry against the Vietnam War.

So in 1971, he resigned himself to the pursuit of dentistry.

He quickly made an about face when a recruiter came to his high school and coaxed him to dive head first into the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont. Hardy saw the move as his long shot to getting in the driver's seat of search and rescue aircraft.

"So I went to military college, and if there's ever a fish out of water in the history of the military recruiting, it had to be me,'' he said.

"First of all, I was not academically prepared,'' he said.

"Prince Edward Island does not have a high standard or as high a standard especially in the sciences and maths, as the other provinces. So I was significantly behind.''

The rigid nature of military college was also a culture shock that jolted the small-town boy who was accustomed to greeting everyone, young and old, by their first name.

"You weren't allowed to walk outside,'' he said.

"You weren't allowed to talk outside. Everyone was sir. You had to stand at attention for a long time and I hated every minute of it. I remember standing out in the parade square one day with a bee in my ear and hoping it wouldn't sting me and of course you can't move.''

His academic introduction to the college was less than stellar, scoring 17 per cent on a chemistry test and managing only 22 per cent on a calculus test.

"I had no freaking idea what they were talking about,'' he said.

But he buckled down. He quit the hockey team and he quit the soccer team to fully focus his attention on academics. While other students sought a reprieve from the military college during leave and day passes, Hardy hit the books in the library every Friday night and Saturday.

"As it turned out I passed,'' he said. "I never did fail any tests after that. In fact, I graduated with an honours degree.''

He also soared through basic flying training and received his pilot's wings in Moose Jaw, Sask., in 1977.

"It was incredible testing. I had a ball. Other guys went absolutely crazy.''

In 1981, Hardy was posted to 103 Squadron, Gander, Nfld., where he flew the Labrador helicopter as he set out on a course that would eventually become an impressive two decades of search and rescue missions.

"Everybody referred to him as Mr. Rescue,'' said retired Lt.-Col. Jerry Elias of Baden, Ont.

"He's done just about all the jobs available in the search and rescue operation.''

The desire even eagerness to fly to the rescue of people in peril was simply in Hardy's blood.

Although his body is free of tattoos, he says if he were to saddle up to a parlour it would be to get wings tattooed on his chest.

"I'm extremely proud of being a search and rescue pilot,'' he said.

"You know when you fly over the North Atlantic in the wintertime it's freaking cold and our survivability is almost nil. If we crash we're dead. And so we're out there pulling somebody off a ship or looking for survivors. We're the last ditch and if we get into a problem, if we go down, there's nobody to help us. It's over. So that's exciting.''

Gwen Hardy said her husband has the right makeup for a job that is never short on both heart-stopping and heart-wrenching adventures.

"I think it's his ability to disassociate himself enough to do the job and let nerves and empathy or whatever come into play afterwards,'' she said.

She recalled the unnerving mission Hardy set out on one Father's Day to try to recover the body of a drowning victim a young girl who was about the same age as the couple's own daughter at the time.

"That bothered him for a long time after,'' she said.

"Something would remind him of that incident and it would come back almost as if it had happened the day before.''

Hardy said he is haunted by the image of the girl's dead body rolling over on a sandbar as he stared directly into her wide open eyes.

"About a month later I got the shakes,'' he said. "A month later it hit me. It hit me hard.''

He says a steady diet of chatter and coffee have helped keep him from turning into a basket case following such unnerving events.

After a particularly rough outing, Hardy and his crew would find their way back to a restaurant, bar or the mess, and talk through the ordeal.

"So we did our own defusing,'' he said. "We didn't even know it was defusing or debriefing. It was a way of dealing with the experience.''

He recalls one harsh incident, when weather, fate and even human emotion seemed stacked against him, that tested both his mettle and his resolve.

Hardy rallied a SAR crew together for a mission that truly put them all in harm's way: trying to transport a baby to hospital by helicopter in stormy weather that could easily send the aircraft plummeting to the ground.

"A helicopter in a thunderstorm is death,'' he said. "It will be destroyed. I mean if lightning hits the rotor blade, it's gone.''

When heavy rain "fried'' the radar, the crew was unable to determine whether they would be flying through thunderstorms.

"We couldn't go anywhere,'' he said.

So the mission had to be aborted. Hardy called the doctor in Grand Falls to tell him the SAR crew couldn't transport the baby. The doctor was not understanding.

"He said 'you know something, I think you are nothing but a goddamn coward. This baby is going to die and it's going to be your fault.' ''

At the same time, Hardy was getting his head chewed off by a crew member, who felt the mission never should have been attempted in the first place. The crew member accused Hardy of trying to kill five people to save the baby. He called Hardy "an idiot'' for pushing too far.

"And he's yelling at me and the doctor is on the other end of the phone saying 'you're a coward, you didn't even try to save this baby.' And I'm sitting there between the rock and the hard place. And I remember my one thought . . . I love this. This is exactly why I'm a search and rescue pilot, because this is so real.''

Unfortunately, the outcome of the failed mission was tragic. The baby did die. Hardy recalls a Grand Falls newspaper running a story the next day reporting on how he refused to save a baby's life.

"And that's what makes the search and rescue pilot and the profession so challenging and demanding,'' he said.

"That's why it's not just flying. It's (determining) how far can I go, how far can my crew go, how far can the airplane go, before I say no.''

His most cherished memory is the result of deciding to go ahead when many others likely would not have attempted the mission.

He flew a boy who needed to be taken to hospital if he was to live in an airplane ill-equipped for the harsh elements as snow fell from the dark sky. There was the strong risk of the engine malfunctioning in the snow.

"We could have said no,'' Hardy said of what proved to be a live-saving excursion.

He and the crew forged ahead. The boy was transported safely to hospital. The boy was later saved.

Then came the touching moment Hardy will never forget.

"The father walked in just as we were about to start the airplane and head home,'' he said.

"He talked about his life as an oil rig worker. He didn't mention much about his son. When he first came in, we said 'the kid made it' and he said 'yeah, he's OK, he's going to be fine.' Anyway, then he walked out and as he walked out of the little restaurant there, he turned and he said, 'you know, you just can't say thanks. Thanks isn't enough.' Then he got choked up and he left.

"I've got medals. I've got awards. I've got letters. But that one . . . You know that was from the heart and that was special . . . That's worth a lifetime. That's worth a career.''

© Copyright 2002 Charlottetown Guardian
Reprinted with permission of Charlottetown Guardian