Military chopper crash investigation could take more than a year: Sajjan

Getting to the bottom of what caused the crash of a Canadian air force maritime helicopter could take a "year or more," Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said Thursday as the government made plans to recover the wreckage from the bottom of the Ionian Sea.

The location of the wreckage — 3,000 metres underwater — will make the investigation harder

Masked military pallbearers carry the casket of Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough during a repatriation ceremony for the six Canadian Forces personnel killed in a military helicopter crash in the Mediterranean, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, at Canadian Forces Base in Trenton, Ontario, Canada May 6, 2020. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

The investigation into the deadly crash of a CH-148 Cyclone helicopter could take a year or more to complete, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said Thursday.

The location of the crash is complicating the investigation's timeline. The Department of National Defence is still trying to work out how to raise the wreckage and recover the bodies of the five missing crew members from the depths of the Ionian Sea, where the aircraft went down last week following a routine surveillance training flight with a NATO naval task force.

Watch: Sajjan and Vance deliver update on chopper crash probe

Sajjan and Vance update Canadians on the Cyclone helicopter crash investigation

2 years ago
Duration 6:55
Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan, and General Jonathan Vance the Chief of the Defence Staff, spoke to reporters on Parliament Hill on Thursday.

The crash killed six military members — four aircrew and two sailors. Only the remains of Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough have been recovered.

The missing and presumed dead include Capt. Brenden Ian MacDonald, Capt. Kevin Hagen, Capt. Maxime Miron-Morin, Sub-Lt. Matthew Pyke and Master Cpl. Matthew Cousins.

Clockwise from top left: Capt. Kevin Hagen, Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough, Capt. Brenden Ian MacDonald, Master Cpl. Matthew Cousins, Sub-Lt. Matthew Pyke, Capt. Maxime Miron-Morin. (Department of National Defence)

"We are actively working on options to recover the remaining fuselage," Sajjan said this morning during a media briefing called to update the public on the Canadian Forces' domestic response to the COVID-19 crisis.

3,000 metres down

Sajjan said allies have offered to help in the recovery effort, but no decision has been made about how to proceed.

The wreckage is thought to be in about 3,000 metres of water — too deep for conventional recovery equipment to reach. Only a few countries and corporations have the kind of deep-diving submersibles able to carry out such a salvage and recovery operation.

Flight data recorders were recovered almost immediately after the crash and are now in Ottawa for analysis at the National Research Council.

Neither Sajjan nor Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance would say today what investigators have learned from the voice and data recorders.

A seven-member investigation team, working out of Italy at the moment, will look at the exact cause of the crash and is conducting a parallel military investigation of the related circumstances, Sajjan said.

Getting to the bottom of the tragedy could take "over a year," he added.

Families will be informed first: Vance

The investigation team is, however, required to file a preliminary report on known facts about the crash to senior military leaders within 30 days.

Gen. Vance, the country's top military commander, said that once the cause is determined, the families of the victims will be notified before the general public.

"I know there's great interest in speed here. We're more interested in accuracy," Vance said. "There's nothing self-evident about a crash."

The helicopter was returning to HMCS Fredericton on April 29 when it inexplicably crashed into the ocean off Greece. 

The first reports that the helicopter had gone down came from local media in Greece and international wire services. Those reports were cryptically acknowledged by the Canadian military on social media, which said it had "lost contact" with the aircraft.

People watch as hearses depart for the repatriation ceremony at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, Ontario, Canada May 6, 2020. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

Later, NATO was first to confirm a crash had taken place, hours before Canadian civilian and military leaders addressed the tragedy.

The initial effort was described as a search-and-rescue operation. It later emerged, however, that the aircraft went down within sight of the frigate and several witnesses.

Vance said that, in the crash's aftermath, the immediate focus was on finding survivors.

"The reporting was done as best as we could, given the frantic, professional, intense effort by that crew, doing what they needed to do, and at the same time report up," he said.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.


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