Although weather was a factor in preventing the military from sending a helicopter to search for a missing boy Jan. 30 near Makkovik, neither of the two Griffon helicopters stationed in Goose Bay would have been able to respond even if weather conditions were ideal.
One of the aircraft was undergoing long-term maintenance work, according to Col. Mark Chinner, officer in charge of the Air Co-ordination Component Element for the Atlantic region.
While the second was initially thought to be ready for flight, a flight engineer conducting a walk-around that morning discovered a problem with an oil line requiring immediate repairs.
“There was not a serviceable Griffon that day to respond to the search,” said Chinner.
Chinner spoke alongside Rear-Admiral Dave Gardam, commander for Joint Task Force Atlantic, and Supt. Andrew Boland, RCMP B Division acting commanding officer, to provide details on the rescue effort to locate 14-year-old Burton Winter.
His body was found on Feb. 1, 19 kilometres from his abandoned snowmobile and three days after he was reported missing.
The news conference took place Wednesday at Canadian Forces Station Pleasantville in St. John’s.
When asked what the events of Jan. 30 say about the condition of the helicopters in Goose Bay, Chinner made note of the fact Griffon helicopters are considered a secondary search-and-rescue (SAR) asset only to be used when it makes sense to do so or when primary assets are not available.
“Would I like to have more helicopters? I’m sure everyone would, but that’s not the reality.”
Primarily, the Griffon helicopters in Goose Bay are used for training purposes, and compared to private operators in the region, pilots in Goose Bay do not have the same level of local knowledge, said Gardam.
He said decisions are made every day on how to use the military assets. He said given the primary focus of his work is Maritime and aeronatic SAR, taking a Cormorant helicopter off its primary mission while two private helicopters were already on the scene Jan. 30 would have left his fleet shorthanded if an event at sea were to have occurred.
“These are decisions I make everyday. I don’t make them lightly, but it is an issue of managing resources carefully in order to meet the needs of a very large area.”
The military was first contacted at 9:12 a.m. on Jan. 30, 20 hours after Burton was last seen and 13 hours after he was reported missing. At the time, the military determined weather in Makkovik would have made it unsafe to send aircraft.
Gardam said Fire and Emergency Services Newfoundland and Labrador were responsible for contracting the services of the civilian helicopters that joined the search later that day in accordance with standard ground SAR procedures.
A second request for military assistance was made on Jan. 31 at 4:45 p.m., at which point two secondary SAR aircraft were dispatched, making use of night-vision capabilities. Gardam said the military had asked the previous day to be called back if their services were later required.
“The reason we do that is to make sure that with the numerous search-and-rescues that happen in Canada, efforts are concentrated and co-ordinated when the resources are required,” he said, responding to a question on whether its policy for ground SAR events should be re-evaluated given recent events.
“I think the short answer is, that’s the process we use and that’s the reason we have it in place. This may be something we’ll look at in the future.”
Asked why an air search was not initiated the first night Winters was reported missing on Jan. 29, Boland said when the RCMP received a request for help from the community-based ground SAR group at almost 11 p.m. that night, standard practice dictated to have aircraft available once daylight arrived.
“Generally, in any type of search-and-rescue, that’s what we do. We examine at the end of a day what our next steps are and what our next processes are, and at that time late Sunday evening it was determined the call and planning for search equipment would take place the next day.”
Gardam said weather on the evening of Jan. 29 would have made the use of infrared technology impossible, and Chinner said that was also the case the following night.
Gardam spoke with Winters’ family for 40 minutes on Wednesday before speaking with media.
“No one can imagine what it feels like to talk to a family in a grief stricken state and say that nothing I can do or could have done would bring Burton back,” he said. “This is a tragic loss, and it was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do in my career.”
Both federal NDP representatives from the province said Wednesday’s news shows the country’s SAR capabilities need to be re-examined.
“The explanation I hear from the military indicates to me that the search effort was inadequate and even if protocol standards were followed, they’ve clearly proven to be inadequate in these circumstances,” said St. John’s East MP Jack Harris.
He went on to add the suggestion deploying primary SAR resources from other locations would have left the military unable to respond to a sea search as evidence it cannot handle more than one emergency at a time.
“I find that astounding, and I think this really demonstrates the gross inadequacy of search and rescue in Canada.”
His NDP colleague in Ottawa, St. John’s South-Mount Pearl MP Ryan Cleary, said the federal government is failing Newfoundland and Labrador on SAR, adding recent events should not be looked at as an isolated incident.
Hearing of the problems experienced with the Griffon helicopters, Cleary’s thoughts immediately turned to the Cougar Helicopter tragedy of 2009, when 17 people died after Cougar Helicopters Flight 91 crashed off the coast of Newfoundland.
At the time of the incident, Cormorants usually stationed in Gander were in Nova Scotia on a training exercise.
“I know private sector helicopters participated in this search — that’s fabulous — but if you compare the military helicopters with the private sector, the equipment the military has and the personnel are better trained than the private sector, so there really is no comparison. I see a disturbing trend here in an increasing reliance on the private sector to do what the military is tasked to do.”
He suggests a review of operating procedures is necessary.