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A Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone helicopter has crashed into the Ionian Sea between Greece and Italy while serving with a NATO naval task force. The cause of the crash is currently unknown.
Six members of the Canadian Armed Forces were on board the aircraft, according to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“All of them are heroes,” Trudeau said in a media briefing. “Each of them will leave a void that cannot be filled.”
Gen Jonathan Vance, Chief of the Defence Staff, confirmed that at about 6:52 European time, HMCS Fredericton, the ship the helicopter had been operating from, “lost contact with the aircrew.” The Cyclone, call sign ‘Stalker,’ had been conducting “basic inter-ship serials” and flight operations alongside an Italian and a Turkish ship and was returning to the Fredericton.
“A few minutes later, flares were spotted in the water. Search-and-rescue efforts were immediately launched with every available resource from Fredericton and members of SNMG2 [Standing NATO Maritime Group 2].”
Vance confirmed that the body of Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough, a marine systems engineering officer from Nova Scotia, has been recovered, but the other five crew are still missing. “We’re not naming the missing at this point out of sensitivity to the families,” he said.
“We are heartbroken to share that Abbigail Cowbrough, who was on board the HMCS Frederiction, passed away during a helicopter flight training exercise accident,” a social media post from Cowbrough’s church, the Regal Heights Baptist Church, read. “Our prayers are with her family, and all those who have lost a loved one in this tragic accident.”
Early on April 30, Canadian Joint Operations Command tweeted that search efforts were continuing with allies, and confirmed that “primary family members of those who were on board the CH-148 Cyclone helicopter that was involved in an accident” had been contacted.
“The cause of this accident is unknown at this time,” said Harjit Sajjan, minister of National Defence. “Search efforts are still ongoing for the remaining five missing members”
Vance said the debris field was sizable but that “as of this morning, the cockpit recorder and flight data recorder have been recovered. He said the recorders had broke away from the aircraft, triggering a search beacon, and were recovered by the ship’s crew.
“An aircraft is being dispatched to collect those recorders and bring them to the National Research Council for analysis. A flight safety investigation team . . . has been initiated . . . and will depart Canada today or tomorrow to investigate the circumstances surrounding this terrible accident.”
The Fredericton is a Royal Canadian Navy frigate that departed Halifax on Jan. 20, 2020, to participate in Operation Reassurance in the Mediterranean. It is the 13th Canadian vessel to sail to the region since the Royal Canadian Navy began supporting the mission in 2014.
The helicopter was operating with Fredericton as part of the SNMG2, part of a collective defense and assure effort with Central and Eastern European allies to counter Russian aggression and other regional threats.
“There’s a lot of excitement on board, and we know we’ll face challenges that are lying ahead, but we have a fantastic crew and it’s an honor and a privilege to serve alongside these sailors,” Cdr Blair Brown, the ships commanding officer, said at the time of the ship’s departure.
The CH-148, a militarized variant of the Sikorsky S-92 utility helicopter, replaced the CH-124 Sea Kings in 2018 after a drawn-out, decades-long procurement process and entry in to service. The Cyclone achieved initial operating capability on June 7, 2018, and conducted its first operational deployment on board Ville de Quebec in July, flying more than 500 hours and 170 missions while at sea as part of SNMG2.
Vance said the Royal Canadian Air Force has placed an operational pause on the CH-148 fleet, which has about 9,000 hours of flying time, until the flight safety team can determine the cause.
“I don’t have any lack of confidence in the fleet,” he said. “It is a sub hunter and it is good at it.”