POLITICS
02/08/2012 01:06 EST | Updated 04/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Military choppers were out of commission when tasked to search for Labrador boy

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Nothing the military could have done would have saved the life of a 14-year-old boy who died on the frozen Labrador Sea, a chief of defence staff investigation has concluded.

The probe confirmed Wednesday that no chopper was available to fly from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L., when the first request for help came on Jan. 30 to search for Burton Winters.

There were two Griffon helicopters in Happy Valley-Goose Bay that day, but one was grounded for maintenance and the other needed an oil line repair that was completed hours later.

In any case, the cloud ceiling was too low for military flight in the region that day, said Rear Admiral Dave Gardam, the commander of Joint Task Force Atlantic, at a news conference in St. John's.

A military Griffon chopper and an Aurora plane arrived on the night of Jan. 31, after local searchers made a second request for help two days after Winters went missing, he said.

The boy's body was discovered the next day by a civilian helicopter, about 19 kilometres from his abandoned snowmobile outside the village of Makkovik on the Labrador coast. He had walked over deep snow and jagged ice until collapsing.

Ice conditions kept searchers from immediately reaching his snowmobile to check what might have gone wrong.

"Despite the very tragic outcome of this event, the (Canadian Forces) responded to this event in accordance with current practices for ground search and rescue," Gardam said.

He had spoken earlier with the Winters family to extend his sympathies, and said those practices "may be something we look at in future."

"No one can imagine what it feels like to talk to a family in a grief-stricken state and say that nothing I can do or could have done would bring Burton back.

"This is a tragic loss. And it was one of the most difficult things I've had to do in my career."

Col. Mark Chinner, a pilot who advises Gardam, said military visibility standards are stricter than for local civilian pilots who know the terrain better.

Griffon choppers are secondary search and rescue assets to be used when primary ones, such as Cormorant helicopters based in Gander, N.L., are not available or as close to a search site, he told the news conference.

"Would I like to have more helicopters? I'm sure everybody would, but that's not the reality."

RCMP Chief Supt. Andrew Boland said military aircraft weren't immediately called in on Jan. 29, the day Winters went missing, because the search was still unfolding according to protocol.

"When the request (for air support) came from the community-based ground search ... it was close to 11 p.m. on Sunday evening," he said. "The process then is to have aircraft available as soon as we can the next light."

Boland said at one point it was feared that Winters had gone through the ice before his snowmobile was discovered. Still, he said the search continued for him on the ground.

"I don't think we used the terminology of declaring it a recovery," Boland said, in contradiction of a timeline released by the military stating that the RCMP changed the status of the search to a recovery early on Jan. 31.

Winters's snowmobile was found that afternoon.

NDP MP Jack Harris, who has campaigned for faster military search and rescue response, is calling for a fuller inquiry.

"It's one thing to say: 'We did it according to standards,'" he said of the military investigation. "It's another thing to say it's satisfactory.

"I'm not satisfied that we've got adequate search and rescue protection on the basis of what we've heard today."