Politics

Canadian Forces chopper crashed in full view of multiple witnesses, military confirms

Call sign 'Stalker' — the CH-148 Cyclone helicopter that crashed last week in the Ionian Sea off Greece — was only moments away from a scheduled landing aboard HMCS Fredericton when it went down in full view of startled shipmates who were preparing to receive it aboard the frigate.

One expert says recovering wreckage will be critical to concluding the crash investigation

CH-148 Cyclone helicopter 822 is guided into position aboard HMCS Fredericton during Operation Reassurance on Jan. 22. The helicopter crashed April 29 in the Ionian Sea near Greece. (Cpl. Simon Arcand/Canadian Armed Forces/Combat Camera)

Call sign 'Stalker' — the CH-148 Cyclone helicopter that crashed last week in the Ionian Sea off Greece — was only moments away from a scheduled landing aboard HMCS Fredericton when it went down in full view of horrified shipmates who were preparing to receive it aboard the frigate.

"There were eyewitnesses to the accident," said Dan LeBouthillier, head of media relations at the Department of National Defence, in an email.

"As part of their investigation, the Flight Safety investigation team will conduct interviews with these eyewitnesses."

The Canadian military acknowledged last week the five-year-old helicopter was on its way back to the warship and was "within two miles" of it when it inexplicably plunged into the water at 6:52 p.m. local time last Wednesday, killing all six people aboard — four aircrew and two sailors.

It was, in fact, close enough to be seen from the ship and was preparing to land when it hit the water.

The victims of the chopper crash (clockwise from top left): Capt. Kevin Hagen, Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough, Capt. Brenden Ian MacDonald, Master Cpl. Matthew Cousins, Sub-Lt. Matthew Pyke and Capt. Maxime Miron-Morin. (Department of National Defence)

At the time, according to one former squadron commander, the frigate would have been "closed up at flight stations" and ready to receive the aircraft well ahead of its scheduled touchdown at 7:00 p.m. local time.

"Flying stations are normally called 15 minutes ahead of time, so everybody necessary for the recovery [can] be in the right places and that certain valves are turned on and turned off," said former colonel Larry McWha, who commanded 423 Squadron when it flew the CH-124 Sea Kings the Cyclone choppers recently replaced.

It would have been a busy flight deck, with aircraft maintainers, aircraft handlers and perhaps even a spare aircrew on hand. The most important person present would have been the landing signals officer, who sits in a glass tower to the one side of the flight deck.

A large number of witnesses

The landing officer would have been in radio communication with the helicopter during those fateful last moments, and would have had an unobstructed view of its approach.

"He would have been the person talking to the aircraft ahead of the recovery," said McWha.

The helicopter also would have been in radio contact with the warship's combat operation's centre, well forward of the flight deck, as it returned from a routine maritime surveillance exercise involving other NATO warships.

Depending on whether the aircraft was coming in to refuel and take off again or to land for the night, McWha said, there would have been a dozen or more crew members preparing for its landing. Some may have watched its approach.

And that means there could be a large number of witnesses to be interviewed by flight safety investigators now in Taranto, Italy, where HMCS Fredericton docked over the weekend.

Watch: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says all protocols were followed by the military following the CH-148 Cyclone last week

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says all protocols were followed by the military following the CH-148 Cyclone helicopter that crashed last week in the Ionian Sea off Greece. 0:31

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would not say on Tuesday whether he had been told that were witnesses to the crash, but suggested the issue was being handled appropriately.

"The military has very important protocols in place when there is a tragic incident like this around informing the next of kin, talking to the families as quickly as possible before sharing information with the general public," Trudeau said during his daily media briefing.

The warship was able to recover the helicopter's flight safety recorders, which are designed to break away and float to the surface after a crash.

Those devices are now in Ottawa at the National Research Council, where they will be analyzed, said LeBouthillier.

Deep water

The helicopter crashed in water roughly 3,000 metres deep, which is complicating efforts to recover human remains and pieces of the aircraft.

McWha said that retrieving as much of the aircraft as possible will be critical to the investigation. Flight data recorders, he said, can only yield so much information about what was going on mechanically with the helicopter.

"The recorders will tell you what was going on. The wreckage will tell you why something went wrong," McWha said.

The Cyclone helicopter fleet is on what the military calls an "operational pause" while the preliminary investigation is underway.

ITS Fasan, HMCS Fredericton and TCG Salihreis train together with Italian frigates Alpino and Federico Martinengo near the Italian coast on April 17, 2020. (facebook.com/NATOMaritimeCommand)

Getting to the bottom of the crash is going to be crucial for the future of the maritime helicopter program and public perception, said a defence procurement and management expert.

"A lot depends on the findings of the investigation and if there is something that can be tied to the operation of the helicopter," said Dave Perry, vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

A fatal fire aboard HMCS Chicoutimi in 2004 left a mark on the submarine program in terms of public and political perception. 

The submarine fire should be a cautionary tale because "once you have a stigma, it takes a long time to dissipate," said Perry.

Originally ordered in 2004, the Cyclone was introduced into the service only within the last couple of years, after almost a dozen years of development, delays and escalating cost estimates. The program was roundly criticized by the auditor general in 2010.

The former Conservative government toyed with the idea of cancelling the project in 2013, but backed away and negotiated a revised agreement with the manufacturer, Sikorsky.

The air force is still taking delivery of Cyclones.

About the Author

Murray Brewster

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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