MacKay helicopter airlift 'under guise' of training

Defence officials raised concerns over a request to airlift Defence Minister Peter MacKay from a remote Newfoundland fishing spot, advising the mission would be "under the guise" of search and rescue training, according to documents.
Minister of Defence Peter MacKay defended his July 2010 flight about a Cormorant helicopter in the House of Commons Thursday, after new documents showed officials raised red flags about the plan. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

An airlift done to get Defence Minister Peter MacKay to an airport from a remote Newfoundland fishing spot was done "under the guise" of search and rescue training, documents reveal.

MacKay's office requested the airlift, which officials quickly determined would need to be done by a Cormorant based in Gander, to get him to an event, according to the documents obtained under federal access to information laws.

"This mission will be under the guise … of [search and rescue training]," one email says. "SAR takes priority and the mission will be conducted on a non-interference basis."

One email describes how MacKay "has a requirement for helicopter airlift" because he "unexpectedly must be in London, Ont., for an announcement at noon" on July 9, 2010.

Alternate transportation would require two hours of travel to the airport, the email says.

The Toronto Star first reported that the emails, which were sent just hours after a request to pick up the vacationing minister so he could catch a private flight from the Gander airport, raised concerns about resources and about a public and media backlash.

Concerns about social media


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"So, when the guy who's fishing at the fishing hole next to the minister sees the big yellow helicopter arrive and decides to use his cell phone to video the minister getting on board and post it on YouTube, who will be answering the mail on that one :)," wrote Col. Bruce Ploughman, director of Canada Combined Aerospace Operations Centre at 1 Canadian Air Division headquarters in Winnipeg, adding a typographical symbol for a happy face at the end.

"If we are tasked to do this we of course will comply — given the potential for negative press though, I would likely recommend against it, especially in view of the fact that the Air Force receives (or at least used to) regular ATIs specifically targetting travel on CF aircraft by ministers," continued Ploughman in the emails released following the Star's access to information request and also obtained by the CBC.

A military search and rescue helicopter, one of three based in Gander, was eventually dispatched to pick MacKay up from the remote fishing lodge.

Controversy arose when it was revealed this fall that MacKay had taken the flight, at a cost of several thousand dollars, while vacationing with friends so he could catch a flight to London, Ont. for a government announcement.

Speaking during question period in the House of Commons Sept. 22, MacKay said the flight was for work, not pleasure.

Military Cormorant helicopters are based in Gander, central Newfoundland. (CBC)
"I was in fact in Gander in July of 2010 on a personal visit with friends that I paid for. Three days into the visit I participated in a search and rescue demonstration with 103 squadron 9 Wing Gander. I shortened my stay by a day to take part in that demonstration," he said.

The emails also document concerns over the proposed landing area, which was too small for a Cormorant. Officials decided MacKay would have to be hoisted out of the area because the helicopter couldn't land.

MacKay's office confirmed that he was hoisted out, and that it was that hoist that was the search and rescue demonstration he later referred to in question period.

'Mutual gain' from demonstration

Thursday in the House of Commons, MacKay again defended the flight.

"I said before I was leaving personal time to go back to work early and before doing so took part in a search and rescue exercise that we had been trying to arrange for some time," MacKay said.

"That in fact happened. It's been confirmed by [Canadian Forces official spokesman] Brig.-Gen. Bedard, who stated 'the mutual gain was realized in the sense that we had been looking to showcase the Cormorant's abilities and the search and rescue capabilities of the Canadian Forces to the minister'," MacKay said.

But the original email sent the morning of July 6 detailing the request for "helicopter airlift" did not mention a search and rescue exercise.

In fact, documents show officials first considered other military aircraft for the task, but decided upon one of the Gander-based Cormorant helicopters, which were closest to MacKay's position. The Gander Cormorants are responsible for Atlantic search and rescue.

The emails show MacKay's political staff intervened to try to persuade defence officials to land the Cormorant, arguing it had been done at that location previously.

A spokesman for MacKay said his office has already answered all questions on the issue.

"I can't control other people's comments," Jay Paxton said in reference to the officials' emails. "Any previous flights in the area were not related to personal time."