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Canadian NATO helicopter crash: ‘Heartbreak and loss for so many’

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered his “deepest support” this morning (April 30) to the friends, family and shipmates of members of the Canadian Armed Forces missing following a helicopter crash in Europe a day earlier.

While Canada still reels from the aftermath of last week’s mass shooting in Nova Scotia and the COVID-19 pandemic’s fallout, the prime minister said the crash comes at a “a time of hardship, heartbreak and loss for so many Canadians.”

The crash of the Royal Canadian Navy Cyclone Sikorsky CH-148 helicopter carrying six Canadians occurred Wednesday over the Ionian Sea, between Greece and Italy.

The helicopter was deployed to the Halifax-class frigate HMCS Fredericton as part of NATO’s Operation Reassurance.

The first victim of the crash has been identified as Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough, while five others remain missing.

“I am broken and gutted. Today I lost my oldest daughter Abbigail Cowbrough in the crash involving the Cyclone from HMCS Fredericton. There are no words,” Shane Cowbrough said in a Facebook post. 

“You made me forever proud. I will love you always, and miss you in every moment. You are the bright light in my life taken far too soon.”

In a brief statement, NATO said its “ships and their associated air assets from Canada, Italy and Turkey are supported in their search operations by Allied maritime and air components from Greece, Italy, Turkey and the United States.”

The military alliance said further about those on board the helicopter, which was on a training mission at the time of the crash, will be released in accordance with national procedures.

Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan said the cause of the crash remains unknown but flight data has been recovered from the crash.

A CAF flight safety team is departing later in the day to uncover how the crash unfolded, while the families of the missing CAF members have been notified of the crash.

Chief of the Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance confirmed that the Cyclone Sikorsky CH-148 fleet has now been placed on “operational pause.”

Such a pause is not the same as a grounding, he said.

“I don’t have any concerns about the helicopter. It’s performed terrifically,” Vance said, referring to the general model of helicopter.

He added that while flares were spotted, his understanding is that such flares are deployed automatically.

While the flight recorder has been recovered, Canada’s top general said the helicopter itself is submerged in 3,000 metres of water in the Ionian Sea and teams have a “sizeable” debris field that they’ll need to search through.

Vance said the recording device broke away from the crash, setting off a beacon to assist with its recovery.