Manitoba researcher killed in Arctic helicopter crash

A Manitoba researcher is dead after a helicopter crashed into the Arctic Ocean Monday evening.

University of Manitoba climatologist among three killed in fatal crash in Arctic Ocean

A Manitoba researcher is dead after a helicopter crashed into the Arctic Ocean Monday evening. CBC’s Angela Johnston reports. 1:59

A Manitoba researcher is dead after a helicopter crashed into the Arctic Ocean Monday evening.

This map shows the location of the crash, about 600 kilometres west of Resolute, in the Northwest Passage north of Banks Island. (CBC)

The University of Manitoba climatologist, Klaus Hochheim, was among three people who died in the crash, which happened around 7 p.m. CST in the McClure Straight in the Northwest Territories.

The helicopter was on a routine mission to check ice conditions at the time it crashed and was travelling with the CCGS Amundsen, a coast-guard ice breaker.

Marc Thibault, the commanding officer of the CCGS Amundsen and Daniel Dubé, the pilot, also died in the crash.

Hochheim, an experienced climatologist, was 55 years old and left behind a wife and three children. He had worked at the University of Manitoba's Centre for Earth Observation Science for the past 12 years, focusing on sea ice climatology and remote sensing in extreme conditions.

The university issued a statement on Tuesday, saying Hochheim had collaborated with some in the centre for as many as 25 years and was a "veteran of high Arctic field campaigns and an outstanding research scientist."

Gary Stern is the associate director of the Centre for Earth Observation Science and a good friend of Hochheim.

"It’s just an absolute tragedy. I mean, it’s surreal. It’s hard to believe that it even happened," said Stern. "You keep telling yourself that it can’t be true, but it is, and you feel a little bit of helplessness."

Stern said Hochheim was "very passionate about what he did. He was a top notch scientist."

Stern said the flight Hochheim was on when he died was part of a massive research project spanning 10 years.

The research is part of the Arctic Network Program, which works closely with the CCGS Amundsen.

Stern said there had just been a crew change in Resolute four or five days prior to the crash.

"They were just doing some ice reconnaissance because the captain has to familiarize himself with what the ice is like before they take the ship through," explained Stern. "Klaus being an expert in that area, the captain had probably asked him to go along with him."

Stern said they likely had the helicopter out to get a visual of what the ice looked like before the ship moved into the area.

He has no idea how the helicopter could have crashed.

"All I know is that the pilot had extensive experience flying helicopters and in the Arctic, so I can’t even hazard a guess," said Stern.

Stern added Hochheim also had years of experience working in the area.

Hochheim finished his first degree at the University of Winnipeg and went on to finish a masters degree and PhD at the U of M.

Crews were able to recover the body of Hochheim , Thibault and Dubé. They are now being transported to Nunavut.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered his condolences on Tuesday, calling the crash a grim reminder of the real dangers of working in the Arctic.

PhD student Kang Wang said he saw Hochheim less than a week ago in Resolute Bay. Hochheim asked the first-timer how he was doing on the ship.

"I said, ‘Ah, pretty good. Good luck with your research,’ things like that," said Wang.

The Transportation Safety Board is now investigating the crash. Right now, it appears inclement weather was not a factor in the crash.

"As far as the weather conditions, the initial reports are that it was clear weather, good visibility," said  Mario Pelletier, the Assistant Commissioner with the Canadian Coast Guard.

Hochheim’s colleagues say they plan to honour him in some way but for now, they’re still coping with the shock of his death.