HMCS Fredericton returns after six-month mission marked by tragic helicopter crash

HALIFAX — Nearly three months after a helicopter crash claimed the lives of six crew members, HMCS Fredericton returned to its home port of Halifax Tuesday, to the sound of a navy band.

Several dignitaries, including Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance, boarded the frigate before it reached land and sailed into port with the crew. A line of Air Force personnel stood dockside holding cardboard letters spelling out: "Welcome Home."

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The vessel's commanding officer, Cmdr. Blair Brown, told the gathering it felt good to return.

"I can't tell you how great it is to be back on Canadian soil after 141 days on that ship," said Brown. "When we departed in January, none of us knew the challenges that we would be facing overseas on Operation Reassurance."

The mission was rocked when the frigate's CH-148 Cyclone helicopter — known as Stalker 22 — crashed into the Ionian Sea off the coast of Greece on April 29 while returning from a NATO training mission. That crash caused the worst single-day loss of life for the Canadian Armed Forces since six soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing in Afghanistan on Easter Sunday 2007.

"The loss of our shipmates in the crash of Stalker had a profound impact on all of us," Brown said, as family members of two crash victims, Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough and Sub-Lt. Matthew Pyke, looked on clutching bouquets of flowers.

Capt. Brenden Ian MacDonald, Capt. Kevin Hagen, Capt. Maxime Miron-Morin and Master Cpl. Matthew Cousins were also killed in the April crash.

"The loss of this outstanding group of sailors and aviators was felt by every single one of us on board every day and has left a space in our hearts that will remain there for all of our days," said Brown.

The Royal Canadian Navy ship was docked in Italy for two weeks following the fatal incident. It resumed its six-month mission in the Mediterranean Sea in mid-May.

A Royal Canadian Air Force flight safety investigation into the circumstances of the crash is ongoing. The investigation is focused on aircraft systems and human factors as possible causes of the crash.

The Halifax-class frigate arrived amid COVID-19 measures, which drastically changed normal return protocols. Everyone on the dock was wearing a mask and the sailors were transported by bus to reunite with family at a separate part of the base.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 28, 2020.

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