Former Canadian Armed Forces officers say it appears a naval Cyclone helicopter struck the waters off Greece with sudden and massive force, and investigators may face challenges determining what caused the tragedy without recovering the aircraft.
The crash took the lives of six military personnel when it went down Wednesday in the Mediterranean Sea as it was returning to the Halifax-based frigate, HMCS Fredericton.
The Canadian Forces members have been identified as 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.; Master Cpl. Matthew Cousins of Guelph, Ont.; and Sub-Lieutenant Abbigail Cowbrough, originally from Toronto.
Retired Colonel Larry McWha the former commanding officer of 423 Squadron, which flies CH-148 choppers out of the helicopter base in Shearwater, N.S., says images from the area show the debris field of the crash is not large and the oil slick isn’t widely spread out, suggesting a high-speed and violent crash that caused some portions to break off immediately.
He says it’s the ocean equivalent of an aircraft crash onto land that leaves “a smoking, black hole” at the point of impact.
Ken Hansen, a Halifax-based independent defence analyst and former naval officer, said the crash is puzzling, as sparse details released to date don’t give any indicators the crew was aware of a potential problem.
He said sources at 12 Wing Shearwater, the downed helicopter’s home base, have told him that the crew was “a star crew, top-notch people,” and he says the chances of pilot error are very low.
In addition, Hansen said he was also told that the aircraft’s maintenance had recently been “completely redone” before the deployment.
“It’s something that would have been done normally for an aircraft going out on a six-month deployment. It was in top condition,” he said.
The Cyclone has a self-diagnostic maintenance system and Hansen said this can warn operators of issues long before they can be discovered through direct observation.
Like McWha, he said the known debris field indicates the Cyclone hit the water with great force.
“That means a major event took place, something catastrophic,” said Hansen.
McWha said from what he knows of the crash, it could prove crucial to recover as much of the helicopter as possible — a challenging task given the depth of the water in the area.
He notes the aircraft, except for a door and some small pieces, disappeared below the surface and has not been located.
He said he suspects it may have landed on a sloped ocean bottom and gravity may carry it into very deep waters.
McWha says while a flight data recorder and voice recordings may tell investigators some details, they often need portions of the aircraft to discover the causes — particularly if there was a mechanical failure — in order to examine the broken part.
For example, when a civilian counterpart of the CH-148 Cyclone crashed off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2009, resulting in 17 deaths, investigators from the Transportation Safety Board were able to find broken titanium studs to indicate the gearbox oil filter assembly had broken off.
Rear Admiral Craig Baines, the commander of the navy’s maritime command, told reporters on Friday that no conclusions can be drawn yet as the military flight investigators haven’t yet examined the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder or interviewed HMCS Fredericton crew.
Among the few details revealed, he estimated the crash occurred “within two miles” of the frigate, but he didn’t indicate how close the helicopter was to ship or how many eye witnesses there were.
The twin-engine Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone is the military variant of the commercially used Sikorsky S-92.
Hansen, a military analyst, said his sources have told him, “the aircrew were absolutely thrilled to fly the thing, it was a huge success until this recent setback.”
However, McWha notes that Canada is still awaiting the final delivery of 10 of the 28 Cyclones, which were already years behind schedule due to the federal government requiring changes prior to accepting the aircraft.
“That’s because they’re still upgrading issues that had to be rectified,” said McWha.
After scouring the seascape with its NATO allies, the Canadian Forces warship formally ended its search for survivors Friday.
The ship was to dock at an Italian port during the weekend.
“Repatriation efforts are still being discussed with the families, as they are of course the priority,” a Canadian Forces spokeswoman said in an email.
“As you can appreciate, the investigation team are busy with their very important work and it would be too soon to discuss details.”
“The commander of HMCS Fredericton is also mourning his team, helping the crew through this extremely difficult time, and of course managing the ongoing deployment efforts.”
Baines has said Fredericton’s crew would remain in Italy for several days before returning to resume its role in the NATO mission.