MacKay's helicopter story doesn't fly, MPs say

Opposition MPs are asking for Defence Minister Peter MacKay's resignation after documents revealed he used a military helicopter to save 90 minutes of travel time.

Pressure builds on defence minister over 'search and rescue training' demonstration

Opposition MPs are demanding Defence Minister Peter MacKay step down from cabinet after emails from defence officials show he requested use of a military chopper to save time getting to an airport in Gander, Nfld. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Opposition MPs went on the attack Friday over Defence Minister Peter MacKay's 10-minute trip on a search and rescue helicopter in July 2010, saying the Defence Department is "not a Toys 'R' Us" and calling for his resignation.

NDP MP Ryan Cleary is calling for MacKay's resignation after documents obtained by several media outlets revealed Thursday that MacKay's office requested the airlift from a remote fishing area in central Newfoundland.

"The email trail that has been released doesn't back up his story," Cleary told CBC News.

"It looks like he lied about it, that's how it looks. So when you have a federal minister of Canada come out, and tell one story and a chain of emails indicate another story and it looks like he's lying, I think that he has to resign."

That doesn't look likely, however, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper defending MacKay at an event in Burlington, Ont.

"The minister was called back from vacation and used government aircraft only for government business, and that is appropriate," Harper said.

Military Cormorant helicopters used for search and rescue missions are based in Gander, central Newfoundland. (CBC)
MacKay was hoisted out of a fishing resort and flown to an airport in Gander, Nfld., to shorten the two-hour trip to the airport to 25 minutes, including 15 minutes for the hoist exercise. 

The Cormorant helicopter used to lift and transport MacKay costs $32,000 an hour to operate.

From the airport, he flew in the government's private Challenger jet to London, Ont., for an announcement on funding to refurbish light armoured vehicles. Public Works and Government Services Minister Rona Ambrose was also there.

MacKay took a Challenger back to the Atlantic that afternoon, landing in Halifax and returning to his riding for the Pictou Lobster Carnival.

MacKay initially told the House of Commons he was observing a search and rescue exercise, but documents obtained by media outlets show there was no mention of a search and rescue demonstration in the original request.

His office confirmed the hoist exercise he observed was the one required to lift him out of the village, which had a clearing of only 15 metres while the helicopter's rotor diameter was about 18.5 metres.


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'Not a Toys "R" Us'

A followup email said the flight would be "under the guise" of search and rescue training.

Outside the House of Commons, Liberal MP Denis Coderre demanded MacKay step down as minister.

Inside question period, Liberal MP Massimo Pacetti said search and rescue helicopters are like fire trucks or ambulances.

"The Defence Department is not a Toys 'R' Us," he said. "But this minister doesn't seem to understand."

Government House Leader Peter Van Loan insisted there was no new information, despite the pages of emails that show the request came from his office and was to transport him to the airport, not to demonstrate search and rescue techniques.

"The minister of national defence has already answered these questions. There are really no new facts here. The fundamental facts remain the same," Van Loan said. "The minister of national defence paid for air travel to and from his personal vacation. Government aircraft were used only when called away on government business."

The original email released to the media says MacKay needed a helicopter airlift on Friday, July 9, at 8 a.m. to make it to an unexpected event in London by noon.

"Request confirmation by [close of business] today that this tasking will be possible, otherwise alternate arrangements to extract [the minister of national defence] (boat and vehicle) will have to be coordinated. Please advise if acceptance of this task will impact on SAR ops," Col. Frances Allen wrote in an email. 

With files from CBC News