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Defence Minister's Fishing Flight

Kip Powick

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Air Force warned about optics of MacKay’s fishing lodge flight

OTTAWA—A senior air force officer warned against using a military helicopter to pick up Defence Minister Peter MacKay from a 2010 fishing trip because of the backlash that would occur if the public found out, according to emails obtained by the Toronto Star.

The officer accurately predicted the storm of objections and accusations that flew in parliament and in the media this fall when it emerged that MacKay had commandeered one of three search-and-rescue Cormorant helicopters serving the Atlantic coast at an estimated cost of $16,000.

Likely to inflame those passions once again is the military’s assessment, contained in defence department emails, that the alternative route out of the fishing camp would have taken a mere two hours — a 90-minute boat ride and a 30-minute drive.

Word of MacKay’s flight of fancy — one that his office insists was a long-delayed search-and-rescue demonstration for the minister — has raised questions about politicians using sparse military resources. The charge is particularly acute because of the Conservative government’s boasting of having scaled back this practice after seeing how their Liberal predecessors took advantage of government aircraft.

MacKay’s travel occurred in the second week of July 2010. It sent military personnel in three provinces scrambling to fulfill the minister’s last-minute request that he be evacuated from the remote Burnt Rattle fishing lodge on Newfoundland’s Gander River.

There were approvals to be sought, schedules to be arranged, a reconnaissance mission to be flown and significant safety risks to be addressed.

All of the planning was carried out in the space of four days so that MacKay could catch a flight on a Challenger jet to London, Ont., from the nearby Gander airport for the sole purpose of attending a hastily arranged government announcement.

The request was sent out through the senior ranks of the Royal Canadian Air Force on Tuesday July 6 at 8:49 a.m. It took just a few hours for then-Col. Bruce Ploughman, director of the Combined Aerospace Operations Centre in Winnipeg, to raise a red flag.

“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 (sic), who will be answering the mail on that one,” he wrote to other air force officials in Ottawa and Winnipeg.

Ploughman anticipated the backlash that would ensue if word of the flight were to get out through an Access-to-Information request from someone looking into cabinet ministers using government aircraft.

“If we are tasked to do this we of course will comply,” Ploughman continued. “Given the potential for negative press though, I would likely recommend against it.”

When word of MacKay’s flight first leaked out, his excuse was that a military airlift would combine the minister’s need to attend to government business with the air force’s long-standing offer to conduct a search-and-rescue demonstration.

But there is no mention in the records obtained by the Star that MacKay wished to take up any offer to see the highly trained crews at work.

It is not until the next day, Wednesday July 7, that the orders go out that “this mission will be under the guise of … SAR (training).”

In fact, air force officials first turned to personnel at CFB Gagetown, which is home to 403 Helicopter Operational Training Squadron, but decided against it when assessing that it would have taken 10 hours of flying time and the crew would have had to arrive one day in advance.

The second option was to call on the CH-146 Griffon helicopter fleet stationed at Goose Bay, Nfld., but that was also nixed because it would have taken too long.

“I would recommend that the only viable option … are (sic) the resources in place in Gander,” a Kingston-based air force captain recommended.

But there was another problem. The landing zone where MacKay wished to be picked up was a 50-foot-by-50-foot opening, and the diameter of the overhead rotor on the Gander-based CH-149 Cormorant is 61 feet.

“Without proper (reconnaissance) to identify obstacles (trees…), security for people on the ground, surface conditions and potential alternates if primary is not safe, I do not think it is feasible to put together in such a short notice,” the air force captain wrote.

MacKay’s political staff intervened at this point, telling senior air force officials that the landing has been performed in the past.

“I am told … that last year the (Minister of National Defence) was flying near this location and the pilot landed there (at a spot near the shore, perhaps a short distance away). That being said, apparently that pilot has now been posted from Gander to Comox, so he is no longer at your squadron, so he can’t help pinpoint the location,” wrote Col. Frances Allen, director of support operations with the Strategic Joint Staff in Ottawa.

“MND staff are going to try and find a name or other geographic reference to narrow your (reconnaissance) area.”

By this time, though, the squadron commander at Gander is fully engaged with the VIP mission. He arranges for a crew to fly over the camp to search for a larger landing zone.

If one can’t be found, the “hoist would have to be used,” advises Col. Allen.

By 4:40 p.m. on Tuesday, Gander’s search-and-rescue squadron commander confirms that one of the three Cormorants in his fleet can pick MacKay up by hoist at 8 a.m. Friday morning, delivering him to the Gander airport 25 minutes later.

“Area (reconnaissance) is complete. Location is 10 (nautical miles) from the Gander Airport,” writes the squadron commander, adding that the helicopter won’t be able to land.

“CH-149 will arrive overhead at 0800 for the extraction via hoist.”

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There were approvals to be sought, schedules to be arranged, a reconnaissance mission to be flown and significant safety risks to be addressed.

All of the planning was carried out in the space of four days

It takes 4 days to plan a mission? :Scratch-Head:

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