The call sign & # 39; Stalker & # 39; – the CH-148 Cyclone helicopter that crashed last week in the Ionian Sea, Greece – was just minutes away from a scheduled landing on board the HMCS Fredericton, when it fell in sight of horrified shipmates preparing to receive it at frigate board.
"There were eyewitnesses to the accident," Dan LeBouthillier, head of media relations at the Department of National Defense, said in an email.
"As part of their investigation, the Flight Safety investigation team will conduct interviews with these eyewitnesses."
The Canadian military acknowledged last week that the five-year-old helicopter was returning to the warship and was "less than two miles" when it inexplicably plunged into the water at 6:52 pm. local time last Wednesday, killing all six people on board – four crew and two sailors.
In fact, it was close enough to be seen from the ship and was preparing to land when it hit the water.
At the time, according to a former squadron commander, the frigate was "closed at flight stations" and ready to receive the aircraft well before its scheduled 7 pm landing. local time.
"Flying stations are usually called 15 minutes ahead of time, so that everyone is needed for recovery [can] be in the right places and that certain valves are turned on and off, "said former Colonel Larry McWha, who commanded the 423 Squadron when flying the recently replaced CH-124 Sea Kings the Cyclone helicopters.
It would have been a busy flight deck, with aircraft maintainers, aircraft handlers and perhaps even a spare crew available. The most important person present would be the landing safety officer, seated in a glass tower next to the flight deck.
A large number of witnesses
The landing security officer would be in radio communication with the helicopter during those fateful last moments and would have an unobstructed view of his approach.
"He would be the person who would talk to the aircraft before recovery," said McWha.
The helicopter would also be in radio contact with the center of the warship's combat operation, just ahead of the cockpit, when returning from a routine maritime surveillance exercise involving other NATO warships.
Depending on whether the aircraft was arriving to refuel and take off again or land overnight, McWha said, there would be a dozen or more crew members preparing for landing. Some may have seen your approach.
And that means that there may be a large number of witnesses to be interviewed by flight safety investigators now in Taranto, Italy, where HMCS Fredericton docked over the weekend.
The warship was able to recover the helicopter's flight safety recorders, designed to break and float on the surface after an accident.
These devices are now in Ottawa, at the National Research Council, where they will be analyzed, said LeBouthillier.
The helicopter crashed into the water at about 3,000 meters deep, which is complicating efforts to recover human remains and parts of the aircraft.
McWha said recovering as many aircraft as possible will be critical to the investigation. Flight data recorders, he said, can only provide so much information about what was happening mechanically to the helicopter.
"The recorders will tell you what was going on. The wreckage will tell you why something went wrong," said McWha.
The Cyclone helicopter fleet is on what the military calls an "operational break" while the preliminary investigation is ongoing.
Getting to the bottom of the accident in an open and transparent manner will be crucial for the future of the marine helicopter program and for regaining public confidence, said an expert in defense procurement and management.
The military and civilian leadership of the Department of National Defense should try to avoid a repeat of the type of defect left in the submarine service by the 2004 fatal fire on board HMCS Chicoutimi, said Dave Perry, vice president of the Canadian Institute for Global Affairs.
"It depends a lot on the findings of the investigation and whether there is anything that could be linked to the operation of the helicopter," he said.
Originally commissioned in 2004, Cyclone was introduced to the service only in the past two years, after almost a dozen years of development, delays and rising cost estimates. The program was severely criticized by the general auditor in 2010.
The former conservative government toyed with the idea of canceling the project in 2013, but backed down and negotiated a revised agreement with the manufacturer, Sikorsky.
The air force is still receiving the cyclones.
The underwater fire should be a warning to those who are conducting the investigation and making decisions about the helicopter accident, because "once you have a stigma, it takes a long time to dissipate," said Perry.