5 military members missing after helicopter crash now presumed dead

The Department of National Defence has officially given up hope of finding survivors from this week's crash of a CH-148 Cyclone helicopter off the coast of Greece, and has switched its search efforts to recovering remains and aircraft wreckage.

International allies have been looking for survivors since crash occurred Wednesday

Master Cpl. Scott Galbraith signals the air crew to put a Cyclone CH-148's helicopter blades in place aboard HMCS Fredericton during Operation Reassurance, on January 30, 2020. (Cpl. Simon Arcand/Canadian Armed Forces/Combat Camera)

The Department of National Defence has officially given up hope of finding survivors from this week's crash of a CH-148 Cyclone helicopter off the coast of Greece, and has switched its search efforts to recovering remains and aircraft wreckage.

The chopper went down Wednesday in the Ionian Sea while taking part in NATO exercises.

In a brief statement, the department said the five missing crew members are now considered missing and presumed dead.

The body of one naval officer — Sub-Lieutenant Abbigail Cowbrough, a Marine Systems Engineering Officer aboard HMCS Fredericton — was recovered almost immediately after the crash.

Five others — Capt. Brenden Ian MacDonald, Capt. Kevin Hagen, Capt. Maxime Miron-Morin, Sub-Lieutenant Matthew Pyke, and Master- Cpl. Matthew Cousins — remain unaccounted for after more than two days of searching.

Unidentified remains

The department says additional remains were discovered during the search but they "cannot be identified at this time."

Rear Admiral Craig Baines, commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic, said Friday that the decision to declare the five "missing and presumed deceased" was not taken lightly.

"While searches on the sea are never easy, these units have completely saturated the area for the duration of the search over a known crash location. So we are certain that if there were survivors, we would have found them within the past 48 hours," he said.

He said every effort will be made to identify the remains that were recovered, but that likely won't happen until they are returned to Canada.

Baines said searchers recovered debris from the aircraft, including a side door and pieces of the fuselage.

A repatriation airlift to return all recovered human remains to Canada is expected to take place next week.

HMCS Fredericton, which was part of a standing NATO task group, is now headed to an unnamed port in Italy and will arrive tomorrow. Baines said the ship's company is expected to hold a vigil to pay tribute to the fallen shipmates before departing the crash scene.

'We grieve'

In his weekly letter to all members of the Armed Forces, the country's top military commander said the accident and loss of life is painful for the families of victims, but also for the military and for Nova Scotia, the province they called home.

"What makes this all the more difficult to bear is our inability – thus far – to recover all of our fallen comrades," Gen. Jonathan Vance wrote in the letter, posted online this afternoon. 

"The investigation will proceed and answers about the cause will hopefully be found. In the meantime, we grieve."

A Royal Canadian Air Force flight safety team was slated to depart Canada today to investigate the accident. It will begin work immediately upon arrival, a department statement said.

Rear-Admiral Craig Baines, the commander of Canada's East Coast fleet, said during a media availability today that the investigators will meet the frigate dockside in Italy. He said he was unable to provide further information about the investigation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised the dead crew members and promised accountability.

"In challenging times, Canadians lean on one another. Together we will get through this tragedy, and never forget those who were lost," Trudeau said in a statement.

"We will continue to keep Canadians updated as the investigation progresses."

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, also in a statement, said the search for survivors was ended "with a heavy heart."

The flight data recorders were recovered from the debris and are to be analyzed at the National Research Council in Ottawa.

In an interview with CBC News that took place before the search switched to recovery mode, Sajjan acknowledged the difficulty involved in reaching wreckage that may be as much as 3,000 metres below the surface of the Ionian Sea.

Few nations possess that kind of deep-diving capability and Sajjan said he's been talking to NATO's secretary general and allies about the technological options.

"I can assure you we will put in all of the resources necessary," said Sajjan who expressed confidence in the investigation team. "Our folks on the ground will figure what happened."

The debris also is believed to be spread over a wide area on the ocean floor. One expert said that spread suggests something about the forces involved in the crash.

"It suggests a high speed impact" with the ocean, said Michael Byers, a University of British Columbia defence expert who has testified before the Senate on search and rescue.

"That will obviously increase the challenges of the recovery operation, but until we have something that can actually go down there — even just to take pictures — we really won't know what happened to the aircraft."


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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