OTTAWA — Crew members on board a Halifax-class frigate personally witnessed last week’s helicopter crash that killed six Canadian Armed Forces members off the coast of Greece, the Department of National Defence has confirmed.
The revelation Monday follows initial military reports that the Cyclone helicopter was missing after contact with HMCS Fredericton was lost, suggesting the aircraft was far from the warship when it went down in the Ionian Sea.
It also comes as the Forces prepares to hold a ramp ceremony on Wednesday for those on board the Cyclone even though the remains of five of the fallen have not been recovered and identified.
Defence Department spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier confirmed to The Canadian Press that some of the crew on board HMCS Fredericton watched as the Cyclone helicopter went into the water while returning from a NATO training exercise.
Le Bouthillier did not say how many crew members saw the crash nor did he say how close the helicopter was from the frigate at the time. However, he said “as part of their investigation, the flight-safety investigation team will conduct interviews with these eyewitnesses.”
That seven-person team which includes medical and engineering advisers as well as a representative from Sikorsky Aircraft, which builds the Cyclone, arrived last Friday in Italy, where HMCS Fredericton docked after more than two days searching for survivors from the crash.
The investigation team is proceeding without information from the Cyclone’s flight-data and voice recorders, which Le Bouthillier said have already been airlifted back to Canada and are now being analyzed by the National Research Council.
The recorders were recovered after breaking free from the helicopter when it crashed and were spotted during the ensuing search for survivors thanks to red flares that went off in the water, chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance said last week.
Neither Vance, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan nor other military officials revealed at the time that the crash was close enough to be seen by the Fredericton. The military instead reported for more than 12 hours after the crash that contact with the Cyclone had been lost and it was missing.
Rear-Admiral Craig Baines, the commander of the navy’s maritime command, did estimate on Friday that the crash was “within two miles” of the frigate.
The military declined Monday to say how close the Cyclone was to the Fredericton when it went down as well as exactly what it was doing in the minutes leading up to the crash. Officials have only said that it was returning to the ship from a NATO training mission.
The Cyclone was deployed with the Halifax-based HMCS Fredericton to Europe in January, where they had been attached to a NATO maritime force tasked with patrolling the Mediterranean and Black seas.
Cyclones are primarily based on naval vessels and used for hunting submarines, surveillance and search and rescue. They entered operational service — replacing the military’s ancient Sea Kings — in 2018 after more than a decade of developmental challenges.
“The CH-148 Cyclone — call-sign Stalker — had been participating in flying operations as part of NATO exercises and was returning to HMCS Fredericton when the accident occurred,” Le Bouthillier said.
“Any further detail on this will form part of the evidence collected by the flight-safety investigation team.”
News of the eyewitnesses came as the military was planning for a ramp ceremony Wednesday at Canadian Forces Base Trenton in Ontario to honour those who were aboard the Cyclone.
The ceremony will include family and friends and will coincide with the repatriation of Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough’s remains, which were recovered following the crash and will be transported from Trenton to Toronto along the “Highway of Heroes” for a coroner’s examination.
The other five will be represented by different military headgear, depending on whether they were members of the Royal Canadian Navy or Royal Canadian Air Force. The headgear will be resting on pillows to be carried off the plane by fellow military members.
Those missing and presumed dead are Capt. Brenden Ian MacDonald of New Glasgow, N.S.; Capt. Kevin Hagen of Nanaimo, B.C.; Capt. Maxime Miron-Morin of Trois-Rivieres, Que.; Sub-Lt. Matthew Pyke of Truro, N.S.; and Master Cpl. Matthew Cousins of Guelph, Ont.
The decision to use pillows and headgear during the ramp ceremony follows deliberations at the highest levels of the Armed Forces over how to honour the five without having recovered their remains — a situation that is unprecedented in recent Canadian history. (Late last week the military reported it had found remains from another victim of the crash but had not identified them.)
Canada only started repatriating the remains of fallen military personnel in 1970. Even then, said Michael Boire, a historian at the Royal Military College of Canada, those few who died on peacekeeping missions and other overseas duties were returned at night to avoid public attention.
The modern version of the ramp ceremony — held during the day with the families and media in attendance as flag-draped caskets are taken out of a plane and loaded into hearses for the trip down the Highway of Heroes — started during the early years of the war in Afghanistan.
The remains of all those killed since that time have been recovered until now.
While that sets up a completely different ramp ceremony on Wednesday, Boire believes the fact the remains of the five haven’t been recovered adds even more importance to what is already a sombre and highly emotional event.
“It’s a wonderful expression to the families,” said Boire. “Even more so because they’re gone.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2020.
Lee Berthiaume and Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press