POLITICS

Bells toll in Halifax for the Sea King crew members who died in crashes, mishaps

08/01/2013 04:00 EDT | Updated 09/30/2013 05:12 EDT
HALIFAX - Former pilot Norm Lovitt says he felt grateful Thursday to hear memorial bells toll for friends who died unsung deaths flying the Sea King helicopters during the Cold War.

Lovitt, 66, came from Tsawwassen, B.C., to Halifax for a ceremony that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the aircraft and formally recognized Cold War naval aviation as a period of national historic significance.

"It's so gratifying to see that these people have been remembered as they should have been," he said. "In the day I was operating, during the Cold War, we didn't talk about it much and it wasn't really put forward much."

The first Sea Kings arrived at Canadian Forces Base Shearwater on Aug. 1, 1963, and were expected to serve mainly as submarine hunters to deter the former Soviet Union from violating Canadian sovereignty.

Lovitt, a former air officer, says the Cold War in those years was heated. The Sea Kings regularly set out for missions near Norway, luring Russian ships and submarines from their ports.

"We would go on joint operations and we would challenge the Russians to come out and play with us," he recalled.

"The world had never seen a helicopter this size flying off a ship so small at day or night and under any conditions. We demonstrated that to them. ... It was a game of one-upmanship to show, 'We can do this better than you can.'"

Ten air crew members who flew Sea Kings have died as a result of crashes or mishaps. Of those, five came during training exercises. There was little public recognition of those deaths, as they were quietly announced as "training failures," said Lovitt.

That was a misnomer, he says.

"I think now we properly acknowledge the sacrifice these people made to the whole NATO effort of fighting the Cold War," he said.

Mark Mander, chief of the Kentville, N.S., police force, accepted a Memorial Ribbon, a decoration given to the families of people who die while serving in the Canadian Forces. His father, petty officer first class Douglas Mander, didn't survive a crash near the aircraft carrier HMCS Bonaventure on Nov. 30, 1967, as the navy conducted training operations.

For Lovitt, it was a powerful moment to see the son of his former colleague receive the honour.

"It was a pleasant surprise to know his son had done so well and was a member of the police force and had successfully handled the loss of his father," Lovitt said.

There was no mention during the ceremony of the frustration built over years from failed efforts to replace the Sea King. Former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien cancelled a program to buy 43 new helicopters in 1993.

As a result, the Sea Kings based in Nova Scotia and British Columbia were refitted to face daunting new roles such as supplying troops during the Somalia mission and providing surface surveillance in the First Gulf War that forced Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.

More recently, there have been delays in receiving 28 CH-148 Cyclone helicopters from Sikorsky. Those aircraft were originally due in the fall of 2008.

George Czirjak, manager of international programs for Sikorsky, attended the ceremony but would only say negotiations are continuing with the federal government on how to have the new helicopters operate on the Canadian ships.

"Right now we're in negotiation and there may be some training going on in August," he said. "We're starting to move forward with the government of Canada."

Ottawa has been reluctant to formally accept the Cyclones due to disputes over the readiness of software needed to run the aircraft for the variety of missions they are expected to undertake.

However, Sikorsky and the Defence Department have agreed to a separate plan that would allow flight testing to begin on four helicopters that have been delivered to CFB Shearwater.

Sergei Sikorsky, the son of the company's founder, said he is surprised the chopper his firm designed are still flying in the Canadian military.

"To be quite honest, no, I never thought it would be a very active aircraft 50 years after it was designed," he said.

"It's still carrying royalty around the world. It's still carrying presidents around the world. It's a unique aircraft."