May 20, 2020

During a  technical briefing on 19 May, it was revealed that a U.S. Navy remotely-operated vehicle (ROV), deployed from a Cyprus-registered ship, will be used by Canada in an attempt to find and recover the Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone maritime helicopter that crashed in the Ionian Sea off Greece 29 April during a NATO exercise.  

Details of the recovery operation were outlined by Canadian Joint Operations Commander LGen Michael Rouleau, Maritime Component Commander RAdm Craig Baines, and Joint Force Air Component Commander MGen Alain Pelletier.

It was stressed during the briefing that recovery of the crew’s remains from the helicopter, call sign “Stalker 22”, takes priority over the aircraft itself, which sits at an approximate depth of 3,000 metres. “Our first priority is to recover our fallen,” Baines told reporters. “Our second priority is to recover what we can to assist in the flight safety investigation.”

The cockpit voice and flight data recorders, designed to deploy on impact, were recovered almost immediately, and their memory modules sent to the National Research Council in Ottawa for analysis by the RCAF and Sikorsky (now a division of Lockheed Martin). Initial findings will help the Canadian Armed Forces decide whether to lift the “operational pause” implemented for the rest of the Cyclone fleet after the accident.

For now, the focus is on “one common objective: that is to do everything we can to reduce the risk of a similar occurrence in the future and hopefully prevent it altogether,” said Pelletier. “We are hopeful that additional findings will […] allow a safe return to flying operations in support of the Royal Canadian Navy.”

In the meantime, a seven-member Royal Canadian Air Force investigation team – led by Col John Alexander, Director of Flight Safety – arrived 02 May in Taranto, the main Italian naval base in southern Italy.

Bains said the Canadian effort will be assisted by the USN’s Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) through an established bilateral agreement. “The USN offered us this option as both the fastest means of commencing the search while at the same time and in the same system to recover what we potentially discover.”

He said that NAVSEA and USN salvage and diving specialists, by using the same ROV to find the wreckage and recover as much of it as they can, as well as crew remains, could shorten the duration of the overall mission.

The USN uses the Remora 6000, a 900-kilogram ROV developed in 1999 by Maryland-based Phoenix International Holdings and extensively upgraded ever since. Rated to 6,000 metres, it has been involved in many high-profile recoveries of civilian and military aircraft and other wrecks.

Baines rebuffed a question about whether the reliance on an ally indicated an equipment deficiency within the RCN. “You can’t have every capability in your armed forces; it’s just simply not possible,” he replied. “We obviously invest where we think we need to most wisely and we do know that we have allies that in certain circumstances can help us […] so, no, I do not think we need to invest in this particular capability.”

The ship at the centre of the recovery effort will be the 4,700-tonne Cyprus-registered EDT Hercules, shown below, built in Spain in 2014 and operated by EDT Offshore, headquartered in Limassol. Operating under a fixed-term contract with the USN, it was expected to arrive at Souda Bay, Crete, late on 20 May after a completing a commercial contract in the North Sea off Scotland.

At Souda, a major Greek navy base and the largest USN/NATO naval facility in the eastern Mediterranean, the ship will be fitted out with the ROV and salvage gear before taking the Canadian-US team to the crash site. The CAF personnel onboard will be two RCN diving experts, two flight safety officers and one medical officer.

If all goes as scheduled, the Hercules is expected leave Souda “on or about 25 May” for a 26-hour run to the site and begin the search element of the mission the following day. Time is of the essence in that while the CAF has good surface data, finding the Cyclone quickly depends on the ROV getting a fix on a locator beacon in the wreck.

It is designed to emit a signal for 30 days, which could mean that it stops transmitting only a few days after the Hercules arrives on site, but it’s understood that the signal has already been picked up by ships on the scene. The CAF notes that weather and sea state can affect search operations. “An operation of this nature is not without challenges,” Baines said.

Once the operation ends, the Hercules will transit to Agusta Bay, Italy, near Naval Air Station Sigonella, a joint Italian Air Force and USN installation where any remains and wreckage would be transferred to shipment home as soon a possible. “There are several unknowns at this point,” Baines said. “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.”

At some point, however, the overall mission could become impracticable for any number of reasons. The CAF position is that it has planned for a number of scenarios contingent on what is actually found. FrontLine was told that Gen Jonathan Vance, the Chief of the Defence Staff has given “complete latitude to conduct this mission.” Accordingly, the team will remain on site until it feels it has collected everything possible, at which time it would be Vance’s call to terminate the operation.

All six members of the Canadian Armed Forces onboard the aircraft died in the crash. From left: Sub-Lieutenant Abbigail Cowbrough, a Maritime Systems Engineering Officer; Captain Brenden Ian MacDonald, Pilot​; ​Master Corporal Matthew Cousins, Airborne Electronic Sensor Operator​; ​Captain Maxime Miron-Morin, Air Combat Systems Officer; ​Captain Kevin Hagen, Pilot; and Sub-Lieutenant Matthew Pyke, Naval Weapons Officer. Read here for more details on the crash. Cowbrough’s body was recovered shortly after the crash. The only other identified remains are that of RCAF Capt Brenden Ian MacDonald, one of two pilots. 

The Navy and Air Force remain the points of contact for the families of the six crash victims, two of whom (SLts Abbigail and Matthew Pike) were navy officers on a familiarization flight.“We’re taking great care […] to make sure that we’re communicating proactively with the families,” said Rouleau.

The aircraft was returning to HMCS Fredericton after a surface surveillance exercise with Italian and Turkish frigates, as part of a NATO operation, when it went down. Pelletier, when asked about the helicopter's state of readiness, said there were no operational restrictions. “The aircraft had just undergone maintenance in the last port of call,” he explained. “So the flight safety team in this case will actually analyze the maintenance that had taken place and if there was any minor maintenance deviation as it occurs from time to time.”

Unofficial reports have the aircraft going into the water nose-down on approach to the stern of Fredericton, which would seem to put it relatively close to the ship. The official line is that it was "within visual distance".

Rouleau also indicated that he was fed up with unwarranted suggestions that the CAF compromises safety for operational expedience, asserting that “no leader in the Canadian Armed Forces” would knowingly allow personnel to operate with unsafe equipment.

Cyclone shown during 2015 sea trials. (Photo: Lt(N) Davidson-Arnott)

“The Cyclone has flown operationally to very good effect for CJOC [Canadian Joint Operations Command] since July 2018, since it was introduced for operational service,” he added. “We have flown in excess of 2,200 hours operationally with this aircraft; there’s a whole bunch, I think about another 7,000 hours that were flown prior to that […] to certify it for operations.

“All of that said, something went tragically wrong […] for that helicopter to go down. This is why the search and recovery mission […] is so important. We need to find answers as to why this machine went down and why we lost six of our own. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” he stated.

What is important now, as LGen Rouleau says, is to learn from this tragedy. “I’d like to think that these six did not die in vain because what we learn from this accident will certainly help make flying operations with the Cyclone safer.”

Ken Pole