An Air Force pioneer: Grace MacEachern, para-belle

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News Article / March 7, 2017

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By Jill St. Marseille

March 8 is International Women’s Day.  In recognition the many achievements of women within the Canadian Forces and in all walks of life, here is the story of a true Royal Canadian Air Force pioneer.

Grace "Gracie" MacEachern (née Gagnon) was a pioneer for women at a revolutionary time for women's roles and rights. She was a ‘para-belle’, a romantic term coined for para rescue nurses from the 1950s in the Canadian Armed Forces. That not only made her an asset in redefining gender roles, but also in what would become modern day search and rescue (SAR) in Canada.

In the words of her son, Bruce MacEachern, “she really blazed a trail for women and for the Air Force itself”. 

Her career as a nurse started as a nursing sister for the Grey Nuns in the Pembroke, Ontario, area. Following the death of her first husband, Cranston Woodward, she enrolled the Canadian Armed Forces in 1951, where she received a commission as a pilot officer just before joining the para rescue course at the age of 32. 

The para rescue course offered in the 1950s was attended by nurses and doctors, who at the time, were the only medical personnel to jump out of airplanes on rescue missions. And they did so on a volunteer basis. The course was the foundation and, at that time, the only equivalent to today's vigorous and demanding search and rescue [SAR] technician training course.  (It was only a month long, in contrast to the current one-year training course). Either way, said former search and rescue technician Master Warrant Officer Gavin Lee, “you’ve got to give a hats off to whoever makes it through [the training]. It’s tough.” 

While the ground-breaking achievements of all the para-belles are worthy of commemoration, Mrs. MacEachern is especially noteworthy for the fact that she is the first woman to do an operational jump in pararescue. This first jump was in Mount Coquitlam, British Columbia, one month after she took the para rescue course, to rescue a geologist.

She ended up landing in a tree and, due to an ill-fitting harness, “she was left dangling by one foot and it took her about two hours to right herself and get down. She used her let down line, or nylon rope, which was 100 feet [30.4 metres] long, however it was still 20 feet [6 metres] short. She had dropped her gloves during the time that she was trying to right herself and, on the descent down the line, she got severe rope burns on her hands," said her son.

It was dark by the time the 95-pound (43-kilogram) woman reached the ground but she carried her two kit bags, which weighed 60 pounds [27 kilograms], up the mountain. She had to spend the night in the wild as she could no longer see anything. She caught up the other rescuers in the morning and the geologist that they were rescuing was saved in the end.

The equipment that the para-belles used was crude: the helmets had cages (much like hockey masks), the boots were similar to those worn by Boy Scouts, the harnesses did not fit the smaller frames of the women, and “the parachutes were basically enough to get you to the ground,” said Master Warrant Officer Lee.

“[The parachutes] weren’t the big competition chutes that we have now, that get you safer in tighter places,” he continued. “You were going to get to the ground quite hard. It was antiquated equipment at the time; and in these times no one would jump in that stuff.”

Mrs. MacEachern eventually had to have several surgeries as a result of numerous jumps, including three knee replacements and a spinal fusion.

She left the Forces in 1955 for a mission of a different kind. She was going to remarry and at the time women could not be married and be nurses – so she pursued a career in the public health sector.

In 1965, she moved to Trenton, Ontario. She retired from public health in the 1970s, but she and her husband continued to visit veterans and the elderly in homes from Kingston to Brighton, Ontario. "She was really a caring individual, very determined, bordering on stubborn, and she really had an adventure side to her," said her son. "Nursing came first. She was determined to go and do some trailblazing.”

Grace MacEachern passed away on February 17, 2010, seven months shy of her 90th birthday.

For her funeral, six SAR techs in their orange jump suits were her pallbearers and 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron from 8 Wing Trenton lined up to pay her homage. She was well respected in the SAR community and affectionately known as ‘Gracie’ to many.

Master Warrant Officer Lee attended her recent funeral in Trenton, where he overheard people say that “she would be so proud” of having SAR techs in jump suits carry her.

“And we were as proud of her,” he said. “She is part of an elite unit in the world. She was an explorer, a pioneer.”

This story was originally published in 2010.

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