The pilot who flew Defence Minister Peter MacKay to the airport in Gander, Nfld., from a fishing lodge says he was happy to do it because it gave him face time with the minister, newly released documents show.
An email obtained under federal access to information laws shows Stephen Reid, who was the commanding officer of the search and rescue squadron in Gander, had no problem picking up MacKay in one of Canada's Cormorant helicopters.
MacKay, who is well liked by the Canadian Forces members, came under fire last fall when it was revealed he had taken a search and rescue Cormorant from a July, 2010, summer holiday at the fishing lodge to get to the airport to catch a flight to a last-minute event in London, Ont.
Reid's email says higher ranking officials at first recommended they not fly MacKay. But "following some discussion we were tasked subject to [weather], taskings [other assignments] etc."
"We were happy to do it as it was non-interference and a good opportunity for face time with our minister," Reid wrote on Sept. 25, 2011. "The alternative plan was that he would be taken out by boat the night before. Travelling by boat on the river in the dark was not feasible."
No search and rescue flights put off
MacKay has said repeatedly that no flights were put off so that he could fly in the Cormorant. Previously released emails indicate his staff understood that rescue missions came first.
MacKay was hoisted — a search and rescue maneouvre — out of the river around the fishing lodge because there wasn't enough room for the chopper to land. His office then told reporters he had been observing a long-awaited search and rescue demonstration.
However, other documents have shown that his staff demanded the helicopter flight to transport him. The flight saved him about two hours off the trip back to Gander, which would have been by boat and car.
In an interview in December, 2011, Reid defended MacKay. The newly released email shows he told his former colleagues the same thing when the story broke last September.
The documents show an email trail from the public affairs office, which handles media requests, at National Defence headquarters in Ottawa, seeking information from the air force for a possible TV interview. It's a "high-pressure" request, the email says.
A public affairs officer in Newfoundland tracked down Reid, who has retired, as well as the current squadron commander for 103 Search and Rescue Squadron at 9 Wing Gander.
The current squadron commander, Maj. Cliff Mowbray, says in an email that the flight "fit nicely" into the squadron's usual training.
"Ops just pulled the manifest for this mission," Mowbray wrote on Sept. 22. "We had two serviceable Cormorants that day. It was very close to Gander and fit nicely into our training routine."
Concerns about social media
Some of the previously released documents showed officials at the air division headquarters had concerns about how the flight would look to the public.
"So, when the guy who's fishing at the fishing hole next to the minister sees the big yellow helicopter arrive and decides to use his cell phone to video the minister getting on board and post it on YouTube, who will be answering the mail on that one :)," wrote Col. Bruce Ploughman, director of Canada Combined Aerospace Operations Centre at 1 Canadian Air Division headquarters in Winnipeg, adding a typographical symbol for a happy face at the end.
"If we are tasked to do this we of course will comply — given the potential for negative press though, I would likely recommend against it, especially in view of the fact that the Air Force receives (or at least used to) regular ATIs specifically targetting travel on CF aircraft by ministers," Ploughman continued.
At first MacKay said he had shortened his holiday to take part in the search-and-rescue demonstration.
"I was in fact in Gander in July of 2010 on a personal visit with friends that I paid for. Three days into the visit I participated in a search-and-rescue demonstration with 103 squadron 9 Wing Gander. I shortened my stay by a day to take part in that demonstration," he said on Sept. 22, 2011.
But documents later revealed the request for the chopper ride came from his staff "under the guise … of [search and rescue training]."
One email describes how MacKay "has a requirement for helicopter airlift" because he "unexpectedly must be in London, Ont., for an announcement at noon" on July 9, 2010.