The use of a Royal Canadian Air Force helicopter for a fishing trip sent ‘the wrong message’, according to Peter Penashue, minister of parliament for Labrador. News of the trip leaked thanks to a photograph of the helicopter and military personnel that was posted on Facebook, raising fresh criticism of military search and rescue (SAR) coverage.
The Department of Defence, however, stated that the trip on 8 June was authorised, and added that fishing is an important survival skill. Capt. Dave Bowen from the Department told The Toronto Star: “I can confirm that fishing took place at Camp No Name, in addition the (nine) troops who visited Camp No Name conducted a recce for ongoing operations at the site and a clean-up of the camp. The survival training of many members serving in 444 Combat Support Squadron entails practical fishing skill[s].” He added that as 444 is not a primary SAR squadron, the use of the CH-146 Griffon helicopter and the activity at the lake did not impact on its mandated standby capability. The squadron has a response time of 12 hours, said the military.
The incident is not the first to spark controversy in the province. In 2010, concerns were raised when it emerged that Defence Minister Peter MacKay had concluded a holiday at a fishing lodge by being picked up by a CH-149 Cormorant SAR helicopter and taken to an airport in time to catch a flight. There is also anger over an alleged lack of air assets during initial search efforts for missing teenager Burton Winters, who was reported missing on 29 January this year; his frozen remains were found on 1 February.
According to Capt. Bowen, the most recent fishing trip was approved by the squadron’s commanding officer as an ‘extraordinary measure to recognise the effort of the ground crews in completing essential maintenance and detailed inspection of one of the aircraft returning to Goose Bay from a deployment in Jamaica’.
George Murphy of the New Democratic Party reacted: “I thought after what happened with the fishing trip with Minister MacKay and the Burton Winters’ story that we would never see something like this again. For the military to call it a reward trip for training, I’m just appalled.”