Cyclone Crash: Royal Canadian Navy Works the Challenge

By Front Line Defence

At a press conference on 30 April 2020, Chief of the Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance confirmed that the body of Sub-Lieutenant Abbigail Cowbrough has been recovered but five other CAF members are still missing after the Cyclone helicopter they were in went down just off the coast of Greece.

SLt Cowbrough, a Marine Systems Engineering Officer on board HMCS Fredericton, had been on the Cyclone, call sign “Stalker” when it went down during exercises related to Canada’s participation in the ongoing Operation Reassurance missions in Central and Eastern Europe.

The identities of all six personnel aboard a Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone helicopter, which crashed off the Greek coast during a routine flight from the frigate HMCS Fredericton on 29 April, have now been released by the Department of National Defence.

HMCS Fredericton and NATO allies continue to search for the other five members of the helicopter’s crew.

The relatively new helicopter was deployed in the Mediterranean Sea with HMCS Fredericton as part of Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 under Operation Reassurance. At the time of the accident, the Canadian ship was conducting concurrent flight operations and collaborative training with Italian and Turkish ships.

The Cyclones are the RCAF’s newest aircraft, a replacement for the Sikorsky CH-124 Sea Kings which remained in service for some 50 years as the backbone of Canada’s anti-submarine warfare capability. They are a heavily modified variant of the Sikorsky S-92, a civilian helicopter widely used in servicing offshore oil platforms

LGen Al Meinzinger and Vice-Adm Art McDonald, respectively the commanders of the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Navy, issued a joint statement in which they offered “our deepest condolences, love and support to the families, friends and loved ones of all those affected by this devastating loss.”

Also thanking Canada’s NATO partners for their search and rescue effort, they said the loss is “a difficult reminder of […] how dangerous even routine operations at sea and in the air can be. In the face of these realities, the sailors and aviators aboard Navy frigates operate as one team – one family – a family that today mourns together.”

Last week, SLt Cowbrough stood on deck of the Halifax-class frigate HMCS Fredericton and piped Amazing Grace to honour those who died in the mass shooting in Nova Scotia. Listen to YouTube video of SLt Cowbrough piping Amazing Grace to grieve with Nova Scotia after the horrific mass murder that took place there on April 18 and 19th.

General Vance disclosed that the helicopter took off from HMCS Fredericton at 4:35 pm to conduct inter-ship serials and was returning to the vessel at the time of distress. The ship lost contact with the aircraft at 6:52 pm, and flares were seen shortly after that. Search and rescue resources were immediately launched, but only SLt Cowbrough has been found so far.

Gen Vance, solemnly acknowledging that “no words can ease the pain” of the families left behind, confirmed that the families of those on board “Stalker” have been informed, and are waiting further word on the fate of their loved ones.

The flight data and cockpit voice recorders have been recovered and will be sent to the National Research Council to aid in investigation of the accident. As per standard practice, investigation teams from both the RCAF and the Transportation Safety Board will soon arrive on scene to gather information and assess the possible causes leading to this terrible incident. Gen Vance noted that only confirmed facts can be released before the investigations are completed.

In the meantime, Canada’s fleet of CH-148 Cyclones has been placed on an operational pause. “We have put the entire fleet, in Canada and overseas, on an operational pause,” Vance told reporters. He went on to clarify: “It’s not a ‘grounding’, it’s an operational pause until the Commander of the RCAF and the flight safety team can determine next steps.”

The official purpose of the operational pause is to allow the time necessary to rule out the possibility of a fleet-wide problem, but it also creates a healing space during which CAF members can grieve this tragic loss within their community as we all await more details.

HMCS Fredericton set sail on 20 Jan 2020 for a 6 month deployment on Operation Reassurancewhich is a NATO-led assurance and deterrence mission that has been ongoing since April 2014. The CH-148 Cyclone was participating in a NATO exercise as part of Operation Reassurance. A wide range of military activities are regularly undertaken by the CAF to support NATO assurance and deterrence measures. These activities include the provision of military capabilities for training, exercises, demonstrations and assigned NATO tasks and demonstrate Canada’s commitment to promote security and stability in Central and Eastern Europe.

“This tragedy hits home especially hard, as I know it does for so many members of our wider Defence Team,” said Defence Minister Harjit S. Sajjan. “We join all Canadians to extend our deepest sympathies to the entire crew of the HMCS Fredericton, who served shoulder to shoulder with their lost teammate and we support those impacted during this truly difficult time.”

Jody Thomas, Deputy Minister of National Defence, expressed how “our thoughts and prayers” are with the families, friends, and shipmates during this difficult time. “There are no words to describe the pain that you feel right now, nor are there any words that can ease it. Please know that the entire Canadian Armed Forces is with you.”

Published by Front Line Defence on April 30, 2020.

In this January 2020 photo, Corporal Chris Rodusek (facing) guides a CH-148 Cyclone helicopter into position aboard HMCS Frederictonduring Operation Reassurance. (Photo: Cpl Simon Arcand)