'Small in stature but larger than life': Father remembers helicopter crash victim, 20 years later

·4 min read
Juli-Ann MacKenzie enslisted in the Canadian Air Force in 1992.  (Submitted by Rick MacKenzie - image credit)
Juli-Ann MacKenzie enslisted in the Canadian Air Force in 1992. (Submitted by Rick MacKenzie - image credit)

At an air show as a 14-year-old, Juli-Ann MacKenzie told her father she was going to be a helicopter pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

It took years but the Weyburn, Sask., woman followed her dream, joining the air force in 1992. She did two tours in the Persian Gulf, and in 2002 MacKenzie, then 30 years old, was sent to 5 Wing Goose Bay in Labrador to be a search-and-rescue pilot.

"Her ultimate goal was to fly search and rescue, and she was so excited early in 2002 when she knew that's where she was going to be," her father, Rick MacKenzie, told CBC News. It's the first time he's spoken to CBC since the crash.

"I was extremely proud of her, but also filled with some trepidation through the whole thing and it came to pass that my fears were not unfounded."

Submitted by Rick MacKenzie
Submitted by Rick MacKenzie

Juli-Ann MacKenzie and her co-pilot, Capt. Colin Sonoski, 39, were killed on July 18, 2002, when their helicopter crashed into a hillside 68 kilometres northeast of Happy Valley-Goose Bay. The two had been part of a search and rescue operation looking for an overdue boat near Hopedale.

The boat arrived at Davis Inlet and the search was called off. About an hour later, Mackenzie and Sonoski's helicopter lost communication with the base. A report on the crash said a crack on the tail rotor caused it to break off, throwing the helicopter into "instantaneous" turmoil, causing the crash. Two other crew members survived and were rescued.

Submitted by Nicole Morrison
Submitted by Nicole Morrison

Five Wing erected an aluminum pyramid memorial at the base and created an inukshuk memorial at the crash site. This month, the base flew in members of MacKenzie's and Sonoski's families and held ceremonies at the base and crash site to commemorate the tragedy's 20th anniversary.

"The world is a far less place without her in it. Her passing has left a void in our family that can never be filled," said Rick MacKenzie. "Both the memorial services at the base and at the crash site, while they were difficult, they offered our family some comfort."

Submitted by Nicole Morrison
Submitted by Nicole Morrison

Rick said gathering with Sonoski's family and the two survivors made them feel like one large family, adding he was grateful to 444 Combat Support Squadron and Capt. Andrew Birchall.

"We all share the same grief and struggles. We appreciate so much, 444 Squadron having memorial services each year to honour Juli-Ann and Colin, keeping their memory and sacrifice alive."

Changes made after crash

While the crash's anniversary is marked every year, Birchall said this month was the first time the two survivors had been out to the site. He said there were moments of reflection as the family and squadron members listened to one of them tell his experience of the crash.

Birchall said the surviving crew member shared his story with the next generation of aviators to "ensure these memories are passed on.

"Being able to share their stories with their peers might alleviate their mental burden," he said.

Changes have been made since the crash, Birchall said. A rock chip in the tail rotor was one of the factors in the crash, so now the rotors are more structurally reinforced, he said, and helicopters are yellow, because the downed helicopter's green colour made it more challenging to find.

Submitted by Rick MacKenzie
Submitted by Rick MacKenzie

Pilot left lasting impression on all who met her, says father

Twenty years after Juli-Ann's death, Rick MacKenzie said his daughter left a lasting impression on everyone who knew her. She was involved in highland dancing, the Weyburn legion's pipe band and military band and treated everyone with respect, he said.

"She was a kind and caring, sincere and loving person," said MacKenzie. "She would beam when she walked into a room. You couldn't help being drawn to her. And she was small in stature but she was larger than life. If you ever met her, you never forgot her."

Submitted by Rick MacKenzie
Submitted by Rick MacKenzie

MacKenzie said he's met many people who knew Juli-Ann and they've shared how highly they thought of her.

"One major who worked with her when she was assigned to the Sea King helicopter squadron put it into context when he was speaking at her memorial," he said. "He said he would readily have gone into battle with her."

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