You can’t do an air search without aircraft

Peter Jackson
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CBC-TV’s “The Fifth Estate” aired its much anticipated documentary on the death of Burton Winters Friday. The Labrador teen froze to death on the sea ice near his home in Makkovik in January after taking a wrong turn on his snowmobile.

The “Fifth Estate” is a powerful show. It asks tough questions, roots out hypocrisy and has even helped effect justice in criminal cases.

But it also presents known facts as if they’d extracted them from some secret vault. And in some cases, it will veer towards a sensational conclusion like a boat with a stuck rudder.

The main point of contention in the Winters case is the way in which the official story as to why no military SAR team was dispatched kept changing.

At first, inclement weather was cited, even though a smaller civilian helicopter was in the air on the first full day of the search. Soon it was revealed that two Griffon choppers at Goose Bay were out of service.

As to why no Cormorant helicopter was sent from Gander, answers varied from a lack of Hercules transport plane support to the dubious protocol of waiting for a callback.

The commanding officer even suggested he had to prioritize a hypothetical need elsewhere over the actual one in Labrador.

“The Fifth Estate” found, with some cause, that these glaring discrepancies point to a major failure.

Some caveats are necessary. Ground searches are a provincial responsibility, and the military does not regularly get involved. Specifically, federal resources are targeted towards air and marine rescues.

But this was a judgment call. And as Winters’ plight proved, land and sea can be hard to distinguish on the frozen Labrador coast.

On its website, the Department of National Defence (DND) emphasizes that the success of search-and-rescue services must be based on overall statistics.

“In Canada, on average, 97 per cent of the lives at risk in maritime distress are saved each year,” it states. This is true.

And on this count alone, the SAR system has been a stunning success.

But one thing “The Fifth Estate” made only passing reference to is that of other recent SAR failures.

The Cougar Flight 491 crash in 2009 was a failure, not in that a response from Gander would have made a difference, but in the fact that no equipment was available if it could have. The Cormorants were in Halifax on a training mission.

This is alarmingly similar to the situation at the Goose Bay base in January.

At the Wells inquiry following the Cougar crash, a DND corporal explained why no SAR operation report was done in the aftermath.

“A (report) is  written by the military if there were some anomalies, some difficulties, some challenges or some lessons to be learned from an operation.”

So, the absence of any equipment to respond does not even count as an anomaly?


Another problem came to light after the sinking of the fishing vessel Melina and Keith II in 2005. Four fishermen on that vessel died as the crew waited four hours in the water for help to arrive.

The main problem?

The call came just before a 4 p.m. shift change, meaning the minimum half-hour-to-takeoff response time fell by the wayside.

How can a vast area of sea and land be covered by a staff that only works a full complement during “bankers’ hours”?

SAR technicians have a tough, dangerous job, and the effect of negative publicity can’t be doing much for morale. But it is starting to look like something is wrong at the administrative and/or political level.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay, meanwhile, seems to think public relations is the answer to everything.

On Monday, his department issued a bizarre news release reporting that a Cormorant from Gander performed an emergency patient transfer from Makkovik to Goose Bay.

The last time DND reported on a civilian rescue operation was last October — and that was apparently because a SAR technician died in the effort.

“The Canadian Forces stand ready to assist provincial authorities resolve situations where lives are in peril,” MacKay stated in Monday’s release.

Actions, of course, speak louder than words.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor.


Twitter: pjackson_NL

Organizations: Department of National Defence, CBC, Canadian Forces

Geographic location: Labrador, Makkovik, Goose Bay Canada Halifax January.At

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Recent comments

  • sealcove
    March 29, 2012 - 09:46

    Peope still watch CBC get out of here

  • Ed Hollett
    March 28, 2012 - 21:40

    CBC missed lost of other things, Peter. The ground search had air support from the beginning thanks to the good fortune that a helicopter was in the area. The police contacted provincial fire and emergency services to get their air support, in keeping with the standard practice. According to municipal affairs minister Kevin O'Brien Universal couldn't fly because of weather. At that point FES called DND. Unfortunately, the one aircraft in Goose Bay that was supposed to be serviceable had a fuel line problem. DND fixed it and in the meantime Universal got a helicopter in the air. As CBC misrepresented information, you did as well with respect to Cougar 491. You wind uop perpetuating the myth that " no equipment was available" because they were on a training exercise. The only thing you didn't use was that vicious untruth that they were "off-station" whatever that is. The truth is that the aircraft were available and were despatched immediately on receipt of the call. As it turned out, the aircraft from 103 Squadron as well as the Hercules from Greenwood were in Sydney Nova Scotia, not Halifax as you stated. That did not add significantly to the flight time compared to an equally likely situation that the aircraft had been flying anywhere in Newfoundland on the west coast or the Great Northern Peninsula. Negative publicity can have a bad effect on morale, but here's the thing I can tell you from the time I spent as a military public affairs officer. When you are criticised for things you did or failed to do, the criticism is easier to handle. You can always fix that. But when the attacks are based on falsehoods, and those falsehoods keep getting passed around or morph into other falsehoods despite the facts being readily available, that's a whole other matter. That's the stuff that just tears down people and destroys everything in its path. The first thing it slaughters is the truth.

    • Townie
      March 29, 2012 - 08:36

      The truth is that CBC interviewed Geoff Goodyear who stated that they did not have the same abilities as DND, no special equipment and no spotters. And the fault during the 491 crash was that NO aircraft were left in Newfoundland in case of emergency. The brass at DND deserve every bit of criticism that they get.

    • Peter Jackson
      March 29, 2012 - 09:43

      Ed: The fact you were in military PR only explains why you immediately go on the defensive and even call people "ghouls" every time they dare question SAR. In fact, your rebuttal is a little threadbare. The Halifax/Sydney distinction is splitting hairs, My point is still valid. Being unavailable due to training or maintenance is vastly different than being tied up with another emergency. And I don't even understand your "clarification" about the civilian helicopter. Neither CBC nor I glossed over the fact that a smaller chopper was helping in the search. From my recollection, CBC did confirm it was a request from ground search. As for the weather, early morning was apparently still plagued with the same conditions that drove Winters off track, but it must have cleared up pretty quickly. Like CBC, I checked weather records myself just after the incident, and the poor conditions appear to have been pretty fleeting. Also, when you say "DND fixed it" do you mean that they got the Griffon in the air? If not, what is your point?

  • William Daniels
    March 28, 2012 - 20:38

    Mr. Jackson, "sensational conclusion" ? I disagree. I thought The Fifth Estate took it too easy on the feds. Following the tragedy the subsequent pack of lies was sickening. There is no defending this.

    • Eli
      March 29, 2012 - 18:01

      That Commander bold facedly lied!. There's no such thing as a "waiting for the call" protocol which he so pompously claimed. If nothing else there should be an inquiry into his conduct and competence in this whole affair.