The front page of The Telegram on Sept. 23 carried a story (titled “Free ride or work related?”) about how Defence Minister Peter MacKay was being criticized for having been flown by a Canadian Forces helicopter from a private fishing lodge on the Gander river in July 2010.
The day after, having contacted the Canadian Forces requesting further information, The Telegram received a phone call from Brig.-Gen. Sylvain Bédard, director general of public affairs for the National Defence and the Canadian Forces.
An interview with Bédard led to a followup piece in The Telegram the next day. That story, as well as a transcript of the interview with Bédard, is provided here for the record.
It did not originally run on The Telegram’s website. However, the printed article found its way to Ottawa and the national media by Monday morning, prompting a blog piece by Jane Taber for the Globe and Mail titled: “MacKay’s response to chopper criticism? Read the press clippings”
“Peter MacKay is sending out a newspaper article from the St. John’s Telegram to defend himself from charges that he abused military aircraft,” it stated.
Since the release this week of internal Defence documents on MacKay’s flight — uncovered through an access to information request by the Toronto Star — The Telegram has contacted the public affairs office of National Defence and the Canadian Forces, requesting a followup interview with Bédard.
Specifically, we would like to know:
— Was The Telegram and, by extension, both Newfoundlanders and Labradorians and all Canadians, lied to or intentionally misled in this case?
— Was Brig.-Gen. Sylvain Bédard covering up, or ever asked directly or indirectly to conceal, the inappropriate use of a Canadian Forces asset, a search and rescue asset, by the minister?
We await a response.
(NOTE: The Telegram was contacted by a National Defence/Canadian Forces rep— though not Bédard — regarding this piece at approximately 2:30 p.m. NLT. The response provided will be included in a story in Saturday's edition of The Telegram.)
Interview w Brigadier-General Sylvain Bédard
(Guide: SB= Brig.-Gen. Sylvain Bédard, AF= Telegram reporter Ashley Fitzpatrick)
SB: “In terms of the actual flight on 9 July, for us in the Canadian Forces, we always look for opportunities to showcase our abilities, skills. And so the Minister had been sort of looking — not sort of — he’d been looking for opportunities in the past and they never came to fruition.
“But— folks heard he was in the area. I don’t know the particular details, I’m not preview (privy) to the minister’s calendar. But I understand that he was in the region, making an infrastructure announcement on 9… Wing, if my memory serves me well. And then, sort of the two got… the mutual gain there was realized in the sense that we had been looking to showcase the Cormorant’s abilities and the search and rescue capabilities of the Canadian Forces to the minister, particularly because he’s the minister lead for search and rescue in Canada.
“And so, on that day, there was a planned sortie for training, so just a routine sortie that takes place — and I can get into the details of that if you want.
“So it was sort of a good match to get the minister to see certain operations for our search and rescue.”
AF: “So, in other words, there was already something planned and this was just sort of a window where we could have the minister come on board, with something that was already happening, to get that experience.”
SB: “Yeah, that’s it. Yeah.
“So routine training: routine training can be as little sometimes as taking the aircraft out to do what we call ‘touch and go,’ so basically practising the flying of the airplane itself, often shorter in length. And as you grow into the full gamut of search and rescue capabilities, you will understand that this can be longer.
“But that day, that day was more of a routine type of training sortie that was planned.
“On board there was a pilot in command, a co-pilot, two search and rescue technicians, a flight engineer and, more importantly, to demonstrate the fact that we continually try to train our folks and upgrade our folks to the necessary standard, there was also a flight engineer trainee on board.
“But, having said this, you’ll understand with any flight, although people take flying for granted sometimes, it is still very dangerous business. We’re reminded, regrettably these days, too often.”
AF: “For sure.”
SB: “Every minute is part of our training and so that day was no different, to qualify our folks and the flight engineer specifically, but for the entire crew. I’m told they used the… some of the capabilities… showed the capabilities of hoisting to the minister, like how it works, up and down—”
AF: “—So if you’ve got a guy dangling from a rope, exactly how does that happen and how does that work?”
SB: “Well, there are obviously different ways to do this and the important portion of this is, for search and rescue, as you will recognize for sure, sometimes the air crew is in a very… very seldom are search and rescue folks going out when it’s a clear day…”
AF: “—where it’s a perfect day—”
SB: “(Laugh) Yes, where it’s a perfect day flying. No waves on the water and things of that kind, right? And so, in the end, what that day provided specifically — like it would have if the minister had been or not — the ability to land in tight areas, to drop an individual and bring him back on board as if we were rescuing someone…Ah… I’m told on land in this case. Nobody was dropped in the water. Because sometimes they do this to us. They throw us in the water, just so we understand how it feels to be in the cold water, but also how to receive the search and rescue technicians, how to grab on to the rope and the wire and get on board and all the safety precautions— you know, not knocking your head and things like that.”
AF: “So, um, in this flight in particular, just so I’m clear, there would have been sort of an example of one of those instances where you actually land in a tight area, pick someone up, and then fly off again. It wasn’t necessarily someone being dropped and picked up.”
SB: “I’m told that they actually hoisted. So nobody was dropped like they do to us. That’s part of our training sometimes. So I’m told that on that particular day nobody was actually dropped. So they must have… They used the hoist, so they may have just used the hoist to show it going down and up — I don’t know the exact details there.”
AF: “I’m just wondering, so I’m clear in my image. Like, my image is when they lower someone down in one of those harnesses. Would that be… when you’re talking about a hoisting, is that what you’re talking about?”
SB: “Yes— I didn’t hear your last word. The hoisting up and down… the?”
AF: “When someone is lowered from the aircraft and brought back up. That’s my image of the hoist.”
SB: “That’s exactly it. Yep. That’s exactly it. So that was practiced. And one which was performed and demonstrated to the minister.”
AF: “Do you have any idea how long this particular exercise was?”
SB: “The particular what? I’m sorry?”
AF: “The particular exer— or the time out? How long that was?”
SB: “We deal with, funny enough, regrettably, with tenths of hours. So this was — the actual portion the minister was involved with was point nine [0.9] hours, to go get him and — So sometimes, and I obviously follow the media (laugh with AF), and so some people are obviously challenging the length. I would submit to you that the length, as I said to you before, the length is not always relevant.”
(Note: SB continued briefly on explaining the relevance of length of run to crew training before the interview ended. The tape was cut off at this point. However, handwritten notes were maintained by the reporter.)
The Telegram: Saturday, September 24, 2011, p. A18
Details released on MacKay's helicopter run
Flight was already planned: Brigadier General
A senior officer with the Department of National Defence provided further detail on Defence Minister Peter MacKay's run in a Cormorant search and rescue helicopter in July 2010.
MacKay was on a salmon fishing trip in the Gander river area at the time.
His pickup up from the fishing lodge by the Cormorant team was attacked this week by opposition MPs as misuse of a military search and rescue aircraft and they have accused MacKay of using the helicopter as a "personal taxi service."
The minister responded to those statements Thursday, saying he had been taking part in a search and rescue demonstration by the team from 9 Wing Gander.
On Friday, Brig-Gen. Sylvain Bédard, with the Department of National Defence in Ottawa, told The Telegram the flight allowed the minister to see the Cormorant in operation and be briefed on the search and rescue capabilities. As for how the demonstration flight came together with MacKay's schedule, Bédard said it was a case of capitalizing on a rare opportunity.
"Folks heard he was in the area ... the mutual gain there was realized in the sense that we had been looking to showcase the Cormorant's abilities and the search and rescue capabilities of the Canadian Forces to the minister," he said.
"On that day, there was a planned sortie for training. Just a routine sortie that takes place," Bedard said. "So it was sort of a good match to get the minister to see certain operations for our search and rescue."
He said a full team was aboard - a pilot in command, a co-pilot, two search and rescue technicians, a flight engineer and a flight engineer trainee - meaning the helicopter could be re-tasked quickly if required. He confirmed the team involved was a secondary team and the helicopter used was the second of two helicopters on standby.
"In the end, what that day provided specifically - like it would have if the minister had been or not - (is training on) the ability to land in tight areas, to drop an individual and bring him back on board as if we were rescuing someone," he said, explaining the team provided demonstration of an inland rescue and a show of the hoisting capabilities of the onboard equipment, as used in both land and sea rescues.
Time out by the team is typically measured by tenths of an hour. The flight with the defense minister lasted a total 0.9 hours, Bedard said.