Prime Minister Stephen Harper has backed his Defence Minister's controversial helicopter airlift from a fishing holiday as "appropriate" even though documents have blown holes in Peter MacKay's story that he used the helicopter for a search-and-rescue demonstration.
Copies of e-mails between military officers indicate that Mr. MacKay asked for the chopper lift at least three days ahead of time to save him a two-hour boat and car ride to the Gander airport, but that the ride would be "under the guise" of search-and-rescue training.
Mr. Harper didn't mention a search-and-rescue demonstration, but insisted that the flight was for government business.
"The minister was called back from vacation and used governmental aircraft only for government business, and that is appropriate," the Prime Minister told reporters in Burlington, Ont.
That didn't fly with opposition MPs, some of whom called for Mr. MacKay to resign. The NDP's Christine Moore said outside the Commons that Mr. MacKay's initial explanation that the helicopter ride was for a search-and-rescue demonstration was "just completely lying." The boat and car ride to Gander airport would take 90 minutes more than a helicopter, so the solution should have been just to "stop fishing earlier in the day."
Mr. Harper's guidelines for ministers say regular government aircraft can be used when commercial travel is not available or "when, because of difficulties in routings or timetables, substantial savings of essential time can be made." The Defence Minister, Mr. MacKay, is the "sole approving authority" for the travel.
Internal e-mails between military officers indicate there was resistance to the request, which required reconnaissance flights because pilots were concerned the area did not have a large enough landing site. In one e-mail, an officer recounted that Mr. MacKay's staff said the minister took a helicopter flight that landed nearby the year before. When asked about that, Mr. MacKay's press secretary, Joshua Zanin, said in an e-mail that "any previous flights in the area were in no way related to personal time."
The pilots determined that the helicopter could not land at the fishing resort, and Mr. MacKay was hoisted aboard.
Although Mr. MacKay said he took the helicopter to be part of a search-and-rescue demonstration, an e-mail sent on Tuesday, July 6, 2010, by Colonel Frances Allen at National Defence headquarters said that Mr. Mackay requested the helicopter because he "unexpectedly" had to attend an announcement in London, Ont. The announcement was the awarding of a $34-million contract for engineering work on upgrading armoured vehicles.
The initial request was for a Griffon military helicopter, but the air force informed commanders they had none in Newfoundland, and would have to send them out the day before from Gagetown, N.B. The task was then switched to Cormorant search-and-rescue helicopters based in Gander.
An officer in the Gander helicopter squadron, Major Steve Reid, suggested the minister leave the night before – Thursday, July 8 – in case there was difficulty landing, and Mr. MacKay had to travel to the Gander airport by boat and car, according to the e-mails. Mr. MacKay's staff replied later that he could not leave the fishing camp before 8 a.m. on July 9.
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.