Nfld. & Labrador

Labrador MP irked military chopper used for fishing trip

Labrador MP and federal cabinet minister Peter Penashue says he's disappointed that the Department of National Defence permitted a military helicopter to be used for a fishing trip in Labrador.

DND defends use as 'extraordinary measure,' saying search and rescue unaffected

The military is defending the use of a Griffon helicopter for a fishing trip to No Name Lake in Labrador on June 8. (Facebook)

Labrador MP and federal cabinet minister Peter Penashue says he's disappointed that the Department of National Defence permitted a military helicopter to be used for a fishing trip in Labrador.

"I think that it sends the wrong message," said Penashue. "But at the same time I recognize that we hadn't put anyone at risk." "It doesn't help the image, particularly with what we just went through with search and rescue on Labrador."

A photo posted on Facebook on shows a yellow search and rescue helicopter parked on the shore with five people in the water. They appear to be fishing.

This time it wasn't the defence minister getting a lift, however; it was members of the search and rescue squadron.

The photo has prompted an angry response from many in Labrador, where the failure to find 14-year-old Burton Winters before he died on the ice is still fresh in many people's minds.

Winters's grandmother, Charlotte Winters-Fost, said she was angry that the department could spare a chopper for a fishing trip, but couldn't spare one to search for her grandson.

"What they have shown up until now is that they are quite capable of making excuses, plausible in their eyes, but certainly not plausible in the eyes of me and the general public," said Winters-Fost.

In a written statement, the Department of National Defence told CBC News the helicopter was from 444 Squadron at CFB 5 Wing Goose Bay.

Capt. Dave Bowen said the June 8 trip to No Name Lake was a "familiarization/readiness flight" on a CH-146 Griffon helicopter.

"This trip was approved by the commanding officer of 444 Combat Support Squadron as an extraordinary measure to recognize the effort of the ground crews in completing essential maintenance and detailed inspection of one of the aircraft returning to Goose Bay from a deployment in Jamaica," Bowen wrote in an e-mail to CBC News.

That mission to Jamaica ended last fall.

Fishing trip 'totally unacceptable', defence critic.

Jack Harris, Opposition Defence Critic and MP for St. John's East, said this incident showed that DND does not give sufficient priority to search and rescue facilities in Labrador.

"They're saying they can do it within policy, but if the commanders feel they have assets available for this kind of activity, why aren't they organizing things so they can have a proper response time 24/7?" asked Harris. 

This past spring, Harris unsuccessfully tabled a parliamentary resolution to establish a 30 minute response time for search and rescue services in Labrador.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale also released a statement on Friday saying "Any use of DND assets that could interfere with their availability for service to the people of our province is completely inappropriate."

The military says the squadron is only required to be ready for missions within 12 hours, so the trip didn't impact their response time.

The Griffon crew kept in contact with 5 Wing, and the chopper was available to "respond and re-task" if necessary.

There was also another search-and-rescue-configured helicopter available at Goose Bay if required, Bowen notes.

Learning fishing skills

"Because 444 Combat Support Squadron is not a primary search and rescue squadron, their mandated standby posture was not impacted by activity at No Name Lake," Bowen wrote.

He also points out that learning fishing skills is part of the squadron's survival training.

The use of a military helicopter for a fishing trip comes in the wake of a recent controversy involving Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

In 2010, a Cormorant search and rescue helicopter picked up MacKay at a fishing resort in central Newfoundland and dropped him at the Gander airport.

MacKay defended the pickup by stressing that he left a vacation to go to work.

At the time, military officials expressed concern in internal e-mails about the impact of social media in creating bad press in such instances.

Last month's fishing trip involving a military helicopter in Labrador began generating attention after photos were posted on Facebook.