For family members of the six Canadian Forces members lost when a Cyclone helicopter crashed in the Mediterranean a year ago, this week is a time of grieving loved ones amid the challenges of a pandemic.
At the CH-148 helicopter’s home base in Nova Scotia, Sailor First Class Shane Cowbrough had hoped to be gathering with crew members of the HMCS Fredericton on Thursday. His stepdaughter, Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough, was among those who died on April 29, 2020.
But the 47-year-old’s plans to be with Abbigail’s shipmates at Canadian Forces Base Shearwater on the anniversary of the crash off Greece have been cancelled.
“That gathering would have been a healing point, but we’ll raise a glass to our fallen comrades at some point down the road when (COVID-19) numbers are back under control,” said Cowbrough, who entered the military at roughly the same time as his stepdaughter.
Originally the military had planned an outdoor ceremony to unveil a memorial near the entrance to the base in Eastern Passage, N.S., but due to COVID-19 restrictions the ceremony Thursday will be virtual and released on video. Family members were being allowed to visit the site Wednesday in small groups.
Meanwhile, in the base’s museum, Abbigail Cowbrough’s cadet cap is among the items on display in a remembrance room – a spot where crew, friends and families can sit and reflect in the years to come.
On Monday, Shane Cowbrough sat before a carved, wooden heart with the words “Nova Scotia Strong,” and described his stepdaughter’s unusual combination of self-discipline and effusiveness.
“Free spirited, determined, giving, loving, all the best characteristics of what we aspire to,” he said of the 23-year-old, who first came into his life as a determined teenager in Peterborough, Ont., after he married her mother.
Many Canadians viewed a video of the young officer piping “Amazing Grace” on the ship’s deck after a mass shooting in Nova Scotia killed 22 people, just 11 days before the Cyclone crash.
Tanya Cowbrough, Abbigail’s mother, said in a telephone interview it was her daughter’s nature to try to make others feel better, and she had a deep faith nurtured at a Baptist church in Dartmouth.
The mother said she had watched with amazement as her daughter announced in her early teens she had joined the air cadets and then went on to take up the bagpipes – both pursuits that were unknown to her family.
“She was fierce, she was a badass and she didn’t take any nonsense,” she said. “She took her military job seriously. It was her life.”
Marie-Claude Miron, the mother of Capt. Maxime Miron-Morin, travelled from her home in Trois-Rivieres, Que., to be with her son’s widow in Halifax on the anniversary, even though pandemic restrictions meant she had to stay in self-isolation near the base.
“I came to get support, to be with Catherine, his wife, and be together in such a difficult time. I could have stayed in Quebec, but it was important for me to come down,” she said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Her son is remembered by the family for his curiosity and “zest for life,” she said. “It’s such a loss, for not only us, but for the military. He was a genius,” she said.
“From a really young age, he was always asking, ‘Why this? Why that?’ The number of questions he could ask in one day was incredible … He would ask not only why the Earth is round, but where is it located, how big is the universe? It was never-ending, he was curious about everything,” his mother recalled.
The crash was the largest loss of life in one day for the Canadian Armed Forces since six Canadian soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing in Afghanistan on Easter Sunday 2007.
Cowbrough served with Sub-Lt. Matthew Pyke, a naval warfare officer in the Royal Canadian Navy, while the aircrew included Miron-Morin, Capt. Brenden MacDonald, Capt. Kevin Hagen and Master Cpl. Matthew Cousins.
Major Simon Rocheleau, who was in charge of the air detachment on the deployment, said in an interview Monday that each crew member had memorable qualities.
MacDonald, from New Glasgow, N.S., was “an excellent pilot, and it was almost frustrating how easy everything came to him,” adding that he behaved as “a big brother” to his colleagues. The other pilot, Hagen, originally from Nanaimo, B.C., was “cool, calm and seemed shy, but when you got to know him was an excellent colleague to have.”
He described Matthew Cousins, an electronic sensor operator from Guelph, Ont., as the oldest one in the group, “who would wait in the back and let the young folks try, and – just before we failed – would jump in and suggest a better way.”
Rocheleau recalled Matthew Pyke, a naval warfare officer from Truro, N.S., as “new in his trade and always willing to learn,” and “after each shift he would ask questions.”
Senior military officials investigating the crash have revealed there was a “conflict” or “competition” between the Cyclone helicopter’s automated controls and its pilot moments before the aircraft plunged into the water at high speed.
A pilot attempted to make a number of manoeuvres while the Cyclone’s autopilot was still engaged. Rather than shutting off, the autopilot started to work against the human pilot before the helicopter crashed.
The aircraft fleet has resumed operations despite the investigation not being fully completed, and Miron said she is hoping for more answers from the final report.
“We need (the report) to understand … When they told us the same type of helicopter was flying again, one month after the accident, I got so mad,” she said. “It was incomprehensible. It felt like Max gave his life to test a machine.”
In the meantime, the crew of HMCS Fredericton has created a memorial patch, designed by Sgt. Scott Galbraith, who participated in the deployment aboard the frigate. It depicts the evening sky that would have been over the sea when the helicopter crashed.
Rocheleau said military members will wear the patch until the anniversary and then bring it back annually to wear in the month before the date of the crash, as a lasting tribute.
Miron says the gesture is a comfort, and she is working on other memorial efforts so her son will be recalled in his hometown.
“What’s important is to remember that they are deeply courageous and they were giving part of themselves so we can keep our freedom. They are all unique,” she said.
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