The Canadian military is deploying a flight investigation team to look into the causes of a helicopter crash off the coast of Greece that has claimed the life of at least one service member and left five others missing.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed during a news conference that six people were aboard the Cyclone helicopter that went down in the Ionian Sea on Wednesday as the aircraft was returning to the Halifax-class frigate HMCS Fredericton from a NATO training mission.
Chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance confirmed the body of one sailor, Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough of Nova Scotia, had been recovered. Canadian and allied warships and aircraft were searching for the other service members, whose identities were not released.
Vance said the search has been complicated by a large debris field and because the helicopter crashed in water that is 3,000 metres deep. It was unclear what efforts will be made to recover the wreckage.
The exact cause of the crash remains unknown. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the Cyclone’s flight-data and voice recorders have been recovered after they broke away from the helicopter when it crashed and will soon be returned to Canada for analysis.
A representative from Sikorsky Aircraft, which builds the Cyclone, is also being deployed to the scene following a request from the military.
“Sikorsky extends its condolences to all those affected,” U.S. defence giant Lockheed Martin, which owns Sikorsky, said in a statement. “Sikorsky is sending an investigator to assist at the request of Canada’s Department of National Defence.”
The military has imposed what Vance described as an “operational pause” on the rest of the military’s Cyclone fleet in case the crash was caused by a fleet-wide problem with the helicopters. The Royal Canadian Air Force has 17 other Cyclones in its fleet.
Hours before the news conference, Cowbrough’s father Shane identified his daughter as having been killed in the crash.
“I am broken and gutted,” he wrote on Facebook. “Today I lost my oldest daughter Abbigail Cowbrough in the crash involving the Cyclone from HMCS Fredericton. There are no words. You made me forever proud. I will love you always, and miss you in every moment. You are the bright light in my life taken far too soon.”
Josianne Garrioch, of Gatineau, Que., was a best friend of Cowbrough, who was a bridesmaid at her wedding.
“She was a really charismatic and bubbly person, and just somebody you wanted to be around all the time,” Garrioch said. “She was really loving and no matter what you did you always felt safe talking to her.”
The pair met at Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston, Ont., where Cowbrough was in charge of the pipe band for a semester and Garrioch was in charge of the highland dancers. She said Cowbrough was an “excellent piper” who also excelled as a highland dancer.
“We sort of bonded over our shared love of the music and the dance,” Garrioch said.
HMCS Fredericton left its home port of Halifax with the Cyclone for a six-month deployment to Europe in January. While the navy has since recalled several of its warships due to COVID-19, the Fredericton has continued its mission.
While Cowbrough was not a normal member of the Cyclone crew, Vance said she was authorized to be on the helicopter during the flight. Cyclones normally contain a crew of four, including two pilots, one tactical operator and a sensor operator. They have room for two passengers.
The Cyclones are primarily based on naval vessels and used for hunting submarines, surveillance and search and rescue.
The helicopter, code-named “Stalker,” took off around 4:35 p.m. local time as part of a training exercise involving Fredericton as well as Italian and Turkish warships, Vance said. It was returning to Fredericton when the ship lost contact with it at 6:52 p.m.
Vance would not say whether there was any mayday call before it disappeared. The flight recorders broke away from the helicopter automatically when it hit the water, he said, and were lit by flares that went off automatically.
The defence chief went on to defend the Cyclones, which the military has only been using on real missions since late 2018 after more than a decade of developmental challenges, delays and cost overruns.
— with files from Keith Doucette in Halifax.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press