09/22/2011 12:43 EDT | Updated 11/22/2011 05:12 EST

Peter MacKay Under Fire For Using Search-And-Rescue Helicopter Following Vacation


OTTAWA - A retired major general and an Ontario Conservative MP successfully lobbied National Defence last year for the use of a C-17 heavy-lift transport plane to move a donated fire truck to the Dominican Republic over the objections of the air force.

Both Defence Minister Peter MacKay and the country's top military commander, Gen. Walt Natynczyk, signed off on the charity request, even though senior staff warned most transport flights were stuffed full with war supplies for Afghanistan and no training flights were slated to go the Caribbean resort island.

Critics said Thursday that it adds to the growing list of questions about the use of government aircraft, including revelations that MacKay was picked up by a search and rescue helicopter following a vacation.

In objecting to the charity request, air force planners noted there are exceptions that allow for specific aid flights.

"The airlift of a fire truck to the Dominican Republic does not fit the definition of a humanitarian effort as there is no immediate life-saving or relief of suffering attributable to its provision," said a Nov. 19, 2009 briefing note prepared for Natynczyk, obtained by The Canadian Press.

The report went on to say that the Defence Department had to be careful not to set a precedent.

"It should be noted that the potential for additional requests to move such charitable goods is almost limitless and the precedent set in acceding to this particular request as a tasking, versus collateral or opportunity airlift, may cause future difficulties."

The air force concluded the briefing by saying if senior brass wanted to grant the request, a specific flight would have to be set aside. As it turned out, they made it happen in early March 2010 when the movement of the truck was tacked on to a supply run to Haiti.

Although the source of the request was censored in the briefing notes, defence sources said it came from a retired major general in Trenton and the community's Rotary club. The general was not named, but the area's Conservative MP, Rick Norlock, also championed the proposal.

While the military objected to transporting the fire truck, the note shows it didn't fight a request to fly two former CF-104 Starfighters from Denmark to Calgary at the request of the Air Force Museum of Alberta.

The old fire truck, purchased from the city of Peterborough, Ont. by a Trenton businessman, went to the Punta Cana Bavaro Rotary Club, which constructed a new fire hall and ambulance base.

A spokesman for MacKay called the charity flight a "worthwhile community initiative," the cost to taxpayers was "minimal" and the air force doesn't go out of its way in fufilling such calls.

"Requests for third party airlift support are considered on a case-by-case basis since capacity is normally very limited and often subject to short-notice delay or cancellation," said Jay Paxton.

Opposition critics said the charity flight smacked of favouritism and raises more disturbing questions about the circumstances under which government aircraft can be used.

"It seems it's a case of, if you get the ear of the minister or the CDS regardless of policy, you can get something delivered by the military," said Jack Harris, the NDP defence critic. "I think the Canadian public would be happier with firmer policies, ones that are not subject to favours being done."

Harris said hundreds of other groups could make similar — or even more compelling cases for transport.

MacKay was under fire Thursday in the House of Commons for having a search and rescue helicopter transport him from a vacation spot last year. The opposition demanded he repay the cost of the flight, which saw the minister picked up in near Gander, Newfoundland.

"It's the minister we have to look to to place controls on this and how can we look to the minister for leadership when he's engaged in something like this Cormorant flight?" said Harris.

MacKay says he cut short his vacation in order to take part in a search and rescue exercise with the military and that MPs from all sides of the House have been on similar flights.

The air force has three CH-149 Cormorant helicopters based out of Gander and MacKay says he was eager to see the demonstration, which had been cancelled on a couple of previous occasions.

The controversy comes barely a week after questions were raised about Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walt Natynczyk's use of a government Challenger jet to join his family on a Caribbean vacation in January 2010.

That flight is being reviewed by the Prime Minister's Office, and Natynczyk says he'll repay the commercial cost of the flight if asked.