The Canadian Armed Forces is turning to the U.S. Navy for help finding and recovering the wreckage of a Cyclone helicopter that crashed off the coast of Greece last month, killing six service members and raising questions about the rest of the helicopter fleet.
Senior military commanders detailed the plan to recover the helicopter known as Stalker 22 during a briefing Tuesday, noting the Canadian military does not have the capability to recover the helicopter from under about 3,000 metres of water.
The helicopter crashed into the Ionian Sea on April 29 within sight of the Halifax-class frigate HMCS Fredericton while participating in a NATO training mission. The remains of two Armed Forces members on board have been recovered, while four others are missing and presumed dead.
The decision to find and recover the wreckage was made soon after the crash to recover the bodies of anyone still on board and to better understand why the Cyclone went down, said Lt.-Gen. Mike Rouleau, commander of the Canadian Joint Operations Command.
While the Cyclone’s flight-data and voice recorders were recovered after breaking away from the helicopter when it hit the water and are now being analyzed by the National Research Council, experts have said examining the main wreckage could provide important clues.
“We’ve determined that the most rapid response capability was resident in the U.S. Navy,” Rouleau said during a briefing on Parliament Hill with several senior officers.
“Speed in this search and recovery is very important for a number of reasons. The first is for the families. The second relates to our CAF ethos: We do not leave our fallen behind. And the third reason is because the environment will degrade evidence over time.”
While the Royal Canadian Air Force has already started to fly U.S. experts and equipment to Greece in preparation for the mission, the recovery operation won’t begin in earnest until next week.
The plan is to use a specialized U.S. Navy drone launched from a civilian supply ship once both are near the crash site, where the hope is that the Cyclone’s locator beacon will still be working. Five Canadian military members will be on board to lead the mission.
While military officials said they have not been told to limit the search because of time or money, they nonetheless warned that it will be extremely complicated.
“An operation of this nature is not without challenges, and factors like weather and sea-state could cause delays,” said Rear Admiral Craig Baines, commander of Maritime Atlantic Forces.
“It goes without saying that until our team is on site and the search begins, we cannot speculate on what they may or may not find or how long the operation will ultimately take.”
While the cause of the Cyclone crash remains under investigation, military officials confirmed some details about the helicopter’s activities in the moments before it went down. Those included that the Cyclone had flown close to the Fredericton so pictures could be taken prior to landing.
The military previously refused to provide such information, saying only that the helicopter was returning from a NATO training mission. The Forces also initially said contact with the Cyclone was lost, suggesting it was far from Fredericton. It later revealed crew on the frigate saw the crash.
The military officers insisted there was nothing unusual about the picture-taking.
“Part of normal operations for a helicopter when it’s returning to the ship is often to fly close by the ship and will take photos of the ship or the ship will take photos of the helicopter,” said Baines.
“This happens not on every ship, but certainly on many of them. And that certainly did occur in this case prior to the helicopter eventually attempting to return back to the ship for recovery and the hoist operation.”
The officers also said they were unaware of the Cyclone’s being subject to any flight restrictions prior to the crash. The entire Cyclone fleet was grounded for nine weeks in 2017 due to a software glitch that saw it lose power suddenly and restrictions were imposed for a time afterward.
“The previous issue with the flight-control computer system, the issue was resolved throughout the operational and technical airworthiness management of the fleet itself,” said Maj.-Gen. Alain Pelletier, commander of 1 Canadian Air Division.
“To my knowledge, the aircraft was under no specific restriction,” he added. “The aircraft had just undergone maintenance in the last port of call. So the flight-investigation team will actually analyze the maintenance that had taken place.”
The Cyclone only became operational late 2018 after more than a decade of delays, cost overruns and developmental challenges. Since then, the fleet has flown 2,200 hours of real missions and 7,000 hours in the lead up to being declared operational, Rouleau said.
“No leader in the Canadian Armed Forces would allow their soldiers, sailors, troopers to operate in unsafe equipment,” Rouleau said.
“All of that said, something went tragically wrong on April 29 for that helicopter to go down. And so this is why the search and recovery mission that we’re here to talk about today is so important. We need to find answers as to why this machine went down and why we lost six of our own.”