Defence Minister Peter MacKay took a Challenger jet at a cost of about $40,000 to fly out of Newfoundland two summers ago after getting a $16,000 helicopter ride from a fishing lodge to the airport.
During Question Period on Thursday, critics accused Mr. MacKay of using military aircraft as private limousines, reigniting the debate over government officials taking Challengers in times of economic austerity.
Mr. MacKay defended his decision after a CTV report revealed that he had left a fishing lodge on a Cormorant search-and-rescue helicopter and flown to Gander airport. His office later confirmed the helicopter flight, and that a Challenger jet then brought him to London, Ont., for a military-procurement announcement because no commercial flight was available.
The minister said the flights were appropriate because he cut short his holiday for government activities, including a long-delayed briefing on search-and-rescue capabilities during the 30-minute chopper flight.
“I think as Minister of National Defence, I should familiarize myself at every opportunity with the important work of those who perform these daily roles,” Mr. MacKay said in the House, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper looking sternly in his direction.
Critics said military exercises and demonstrations are usually more elaborate than improvised flights from remote fishing spots.
"I have gone up in a search and rescue helicopter and I spent the whole day doing it," said Scott Simms, a Liberal MP from the Newfoundland riding where Mr. MacKay went fishing. "Nobody picked me up at home. Nobody picked me up at my cabin."
Jack Harris, the defence critic for the NDP who also is from Newfoundland, said Mr. MacKay’s explanations did not make sense.
“Being picked up at a cost of $16,000 from a fishing camp is not the way you learn how search-and-rescue helicopters operate,” Mr. Harris said. “My information is that the flight was ordered on the day that it took place without any planning or warning, so what demonstration actually took place?”
A former senior aide to defence ministers said military exercises and demonstrations are complex operations in which nothing is left to chance.
"The way this one took place doesn't fit with the military's modus operandi," the former ministerial aide said.
Earlier this week, General Walter Natynczyk, the Chief of Defence Staff, promised after several days of controversy to repay the cost of a flight on a government jet to meet his family on holidays after military affairs disrupted his plans.
There was much speculation on the Hill on Thursday that the military leaked the story about Mr. MacKay's flight as payback for Mr. Harper's failure to offer a clear defence of Gen. Natynczyk's Challenger flights. Military sources told CTV that the order to pick up Mr. MacKay at a fishing lodge came from the Defence Minister's office.
DND documents say the total annual cost per flying hour for a Cormorant helicopter is $32,232, and Mr. MacKay's flight was about 30 minutes long. Challenger flights are estimated to cost about $10,000 an hour, although some of the expenses are incurred whether the planes are flying or not. The plane took about four hours to reach London.
Search-and-rescue technicians in the Canadian Forces want replacements for their fixed-wing aircraft and have been urging Mr. MacKay to participate in a demonstration.
“After cancelling previous efforts to demonstrate their search-and-rescue capabilities to Minister MacKay over the course of three years, the opportunity for a search-and-rescue demonstration finally presented itself in July of 2010,” Mr. MacKay’s office said in a statement.
"As such, Minister MacKay cut his personal trip to the area short to participate in this Cormorant exercise and later flew from Gander, NFLD and via a separate military asset to London, Ontario where he announced a $34.4-million Armoured Vehichles Upgrade Project to better protect our men and women in uniform," the statement said.
With a report from Gloria Galloway