OTTAWA — The commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force says he has "full confidence" in the military's new Cyclone helicopters despite a growing number of incidents that include last year's deadly crash off the coast of Greece and an emergency landing in a Halifax park last month.
In an exclusive interview with The Canadian Press, Lt.-Gen. Al Meinzinger played down the emergency landing as a precautionary move and defended the decision to let the Cyclones back in the air despite unanswered questions about the downing of Stalker 22.
"Yes, I have full confidence in the aircraft," he said. "In each case when there's an accident, we don't rush. We take our time. We are very deliberate because we have to be right. This is serious business."
Meinzinger's comments followed a commemoration last week of the one-year anniversary of the downing of Stalker 22, which killed six Canadian Armed Forces members, the largest single-day loss of life for the military in more than a decade.
They also coincided with an ongoing investigation into the causes of the crash, after a preliminary report last June suggested the helicopter's autopilot was fighting the pilot's commands when it crashed at high speed into the Ionian Sea.
Master Cpl. Matthew Cousins, Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough, Capt. Kevin Hagen, Capt. Brenden MacDonald, Capt. Maxime Miron-Morin and Sub-Lt. Matthew Pyke died in the crash.
Miron-Morin's mother, Marie-Claude Miron, has since questioned why the Cyclones, which only started flying real missions in 2018, were allowed back into the air less than two months after the crash when the reasons remain under investigation.
"We need (the report) to understand," Miron said last week. "When they told us the same type of helicopter was flying again, one month after the accident, I got so mad. It was incomprehensible. It felt like Max gave his life to test a machine."
The Cyclones are typically deployed on board Canadian frigates and used for search and rescue, surveillance and anti-submarine warfare.
Meinzinger expressed optimism flight-safety investigators would produce their report soon and committed to briefing the families as soon as it is finished.
"That work continues, and it will be done professionally and thoroughly," he said of the investigation. "Once it is completed, the first individuals that will be briefed will be the families before it is made public."
Yet Meinzinger also defended the decision to let the Cyclones get back into the air last June, saying: "Of course, we wouldn't have made that decision lightly. A great deal of review and technical and operational advice went into that."
The air force commander went on to praise the air force personnel and procedures used to determine whether a plane or helicopter is safe to use, and noted that the Cyclones have flown numerous missions since Stalker 22 crashed.
One of those other helicopters was forced to make an emergency landing in Rainbow Haven Provincial Park on April 13 after a warning light alerted the crew of a problem with the main rotorhead, which is where the shafts of the blades join the rotor.
The military says the helicopter was towed to nearby 12 Wing Shearwater where the problem was fixed, and it has since resumed flying.
"This was on the absolute low end of concern," Meinzinger said of the incident. "The crew did what any crew would do, which is land, call a tech, have them look at the aircraft and then get it back flying soon thereafter. I have no concerns."
Much of the discussion after Stalker 22 crashed surrounded the Cyclone's long and problem-plagued development, with manufacturer Sikorsky Aircraft even now still developing the aircraft's software to meet the military's full requirements.
The crash of Stalker 22 was actually the third incident involving a Cyclone, with a software glitch blamed for one of the helicopters suddenly dropping several hundred feet during a test flight in 2017. Another had a "hard landing" on a ship in February 2019.
Several restrictions were placed on the helicopters after the 2017 incident forbidding crews from performing certain manoeuvres.
Lt.-Col. Bill Thomey, commanding officer of 423 Squadron at Shearwater, said last week that the resumption of flights after Stalker 22 was accompanied by new training and updates to flight manuals so pilots are aware of the problem and how to respond.
Asked if the software of the flight control system has been changed, Thomey responded: "That (information) will all come out in due time with the release of the (safety) reports."
Two of the military's 16 Cyclones are currently assigned to ships: one on HMCS Calgary and the other on HMCS Halifax. There are still 11 helicopters to be delivered to Canada by the American manufacturer.
— With files from Michael Tutton in Halifax
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 5, 2021.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press