Defence Minister Peter MacKay asked for a helicopter airlift from a Newfoundland fishing vacation in order to catch a plane to Ontario, e-mails show – a request that contradicts his earlier explanation that he'd tasked the chopper to participate in a search-and-rescue demonstration.
Records released by the Department of National Defence show that three days before the controversial 2010 flight, Mr. MacKay's office requested a helicopter on the grounds he had a last-minute need to "unexpectedly" head to London, Ont.
A chopper wasn't necessary, military officials noted in one e-mail, estimating that Gander Airport was a two-hour trip by boat and car from the fishing camp.
One senior officer raised early concerns about public fallout.
"When the guy who's fishing at the fishing hole next to the minister sees the big yellow helicopter arrive and decides to use his cell phone to video[tape]the minister getting on board and post it on YouTube, who will be answering the mail on that one?" Colonel Bruce Ploughman asked in an e-mail.
A lieutenant-colonel involved in preparing the flight went on to describe the July 9, 2010, chopper trip as being conducted "under the guise of … SAR [search and rescue]training."
Col. Ploughman, for his part, adamantly advised against ferrying the minister in a search-and-rescue helicopter in his capacity as director of the Canadian Forces aerospace operations centre in Winnipeg.
"Given the potential for negative press though, I would likely recommend against it, especially in view of the fact the air force receives (or at least used to) regular access-to-information requests specifically targeting travel on Canadian Forces aircraft by ministers," the senior officer said in an e-mail discussion about the MacKay request.
"If we are tasked to do this, we of course will comply," he said.
The air force ended up conducting a reconnaissance flight ahead of the actual pickup to find a suitable landing spot near the Burnt Rattle fishing camp on the Gander River.
It could not find one and chose to pick up the Defence Minister in a hoist after deciding the area was "unsuitable to conduct a landing in close enough proximity."
Together, the reconnaissance flight and the MacKay helicopter trip cost thousands of dollars. National Defence says the Cormorant's total costs exceed $32,000 per flying hour.
When news of the helicopter flight first surfaced this past September, Mr. MacKay and his office defended the flight as a chance to join in a search and rescue training exercise.
"After cancelling previous efforts to demonstrate their search-and-rescue capabilities to Minister MacKay over the course of three years, the opportunity for a simulated search and rescue exercise finally presented itself in July of 2010," a Sept. 21 statement from Mr. MacKay's office said.
The minister stood by his previous explanation Thursday while fielding opposition questions about the Defence Department e-mails released under access-to-information law.
"I was leaving personal time to go back to work early and before doing so, took part in a search and rescue exercise that we had been trying to arrange for some time," Mr. MacKay said.
In his defence, he cited comments Brigadier-General Sylvain Bedard, a military spokesman, made to the St. John's Telegram in September. At the time the officer said the flight allowed the military to "showcase the Cormorant's abilities and the search and rescue capabilities of the Canadian Forces to the minister."
An official tasking request for the helicopter, detailed in an e-mail by the Strategic Joint Staff office at National Defence on July 6, makes no mention of staging a search and rescue exercise when it sought the aircraft to fly Mr. MacKay to Gander Airport.
Instead it recounts how Mr. MacKay needed a lift to catch a flight from Gander to an Ontario military procurement announcement – adding if a helicopter wasn't available, the government would need "alternate arrangements to extract the minister."
The e-mail records show Mr. MacKay's office didn't initially ask for a CH-149 Cormorant search and rescue helicopter, but rather a smaller CH-146 Griffon helicopter.
The records will cause political grief for Mr. MacKay, who is currently trying to convince soldiers and civilians at National Defence to tighten their belts in order to help the Conservatives slay Ottawa's big budget deficit.
A Globe and Mail investigation recently showed the Defence Minister outranked all cabinet colleagues except the Prime Minister when it came to using federal government executive jets.
Earle McCurdy, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union, said Mr. MacKay's use of the helicopter "really speaks to their priorities," noting the sleepless nights of families worrying about whether loved ones will get help in time if disaster strikes while they are at sea.
"It's so obviously outrageous, it's hard to know how to express it," he said in a telephone interview. "It's like getting the fire department over to light the mayor's birthday cake."
Search and rescue is a hot topic in Newfoundland and Labrador. There have been large protests about the coverage provided by the three Cormorants stationed in Gander and criticism of response standards that allow for a two-hour reaction time overnight.
St. John's MP Jack Harris, a New Democrat who has made search and rescue capability one of his priorities, said it was galling to see a minister get ferried around while people who work on the water have to make do with limited rescue options at night.
"It is a bit shocking, and I think the military themselves knew it was going to be a public relations disaster," Mr. Harris said from Ottawa. "It seems that the minister is taking advantage of the availability of the military helicopters for transportation and is not taking seriously the needs of those who are on the water 24-7."