Searching for truth in MacKay’s search-and-rescue helicopter ride
from Allan Woods, Ottawa Bureau
There's nothing like a fishing story to spice up an otherwise slow Friday in the nation's capital. Thank Defence Minister Peter MacKay and the pugnacious opposition for that.
The latest twist on the personal-use-of-public-aircraft saga involves allegations that MacKay pulled rank on military officials at the Gander air force base when he ordered a search-and-rescue helicopter to pick him up from a fancy fishing lodge.
The way the Liberals understand it, MacKay was initially turned down by a local base commander when he requested that military personnel at CFB Gander pick him up at the lodge on the Gander River in July 2010. MacKay had been salmon fishing with friends.
“We believe the local base was overruled, that he used his minister’s office to talk to higher up military brass, to order it done so that he could have a quick trip to the airport,” Liberal MP Wayne Easter, who made the allegations in the House of Commons, explained in an interview Friday.
MacKay's version of the story is that he decided to fit in a long-delayed search-and-rescue demonstration with a CH-149 Cormorant helicopter when his fishing trip was cut short because he had to attend a government announcement July 9 in London, Ont.
Government officials said on Thursday that MacKay was hoisted from the ground into the helicopter, which was hovering overhead. It was explained that the air force had long sought the demonstration with MacKay to support their case for new fixed-wing search-and-rescue aircraft.
It isn't clear how hoisting the minister into the air (something that shouldn't be attempted in anything except for a helicopter) bolsters the air force's case for new airplanes.
Having taken part in several military demonstrations as the Star's defence reporter, it is true that there are waivers and forms that must be filled out absolving the Canadian Forces of legal responsibility in the event of an accident. The Liberals have asked MacKay to produce any forms he may have signed before his demonstration, or any emails his office either sent or received proving that his Cormorant ride was anything more than a "limousine ride" as critics claimed this week.
"You know, I had the opportunity to go on one of those army exchanges and they gave us three months’ heads-up and told us where to go, when to show and it was very, very well planned on the army side," said Liberal MP Justin Trudeau. "The helicopters are not at the beck and call of the Minister. Therefore, there must be a paper trail demonstrating that this was a planned exercise. If it wasn’t he has some explaining to do."
MacKay didn't provide any new information in the Commons about what happened, nor did he address allegations that MacKay’s initial request for a ride in the Cormorant was rejected, prompting him to run up the air force chain of command and have the Cormorant ordered to pick him up.
Brig.-Gen. Sylvain Bedard, a military spokesman, said that the helicopter in question was scheduled for an entire day of aircrew training with a flight commander on board as well as a co-pilot, two search-and-rescue technicians, a flight engineer and a flight engineer trainee.
Bedard initially said that the search-and-rescue squadron was aware of MacKay’s visit to Newfoundland because he had made an infrastructure announcement at the base before going on the fishing trip.
Informed that the announcement was in fact made in 2009, not 2010, Bedard quickly corrected himself.
He said that MacKay’s fishing trip began on July 5 but maintained that the military was still aware of his presence in the region because military officers, act as a liaison to the defence minister’s office, knew of his travel plans.
“From our perspective … it really seems like this was a mutual gain-sort of approach,” Bedard said Friday.
But that's the after-the-fact verdict and doesn't answer whether the local base commander in Gander approved of the 30-minute demonstration that air force personnel performed for MacKay that day at an approximate cost of $16,000.
And since this is -- at its essence -- a political argument about cost cutting and use of very expensive government resources, I made an inquiry today after being told that anglers normally use helicopter, float plane or boat charters to reach fishing destinations on the Gander River.
One Gander-based charter operator, contacted Friday, said the hourly rate for a helicopter ride was just over $1,700.