The crash of a giant U.S. cargo airplane on Ellesmere Island in Canada’s far northern extreme has the Canadian government scrambling to get a rescue and recovery team up to the crash site. The team will have to work out of tiny Alert, a research station that is the most northern permanent settlement in the world. It’s a job for Major Daniel T. Court. Court’s problem is that he hasn’t a clue of why he was selected for the challenging task. He’s a new guy in Global Affairs of the government after a military career. He is also one of the few people, it seems, who wants to get to the site to help any survivors. Everyone else, it appears, is bent on making sure there are no witnesses to the event. Why is there such a cloak of mystery over the crash? Why are American mercenaries and Russian troops the only other people on the way to the site? What – or who – was aboard the crashed plane and are they alive to explain the whole mess?
THE TEMPORARY PRESIDENT
Why me? I didn’t do more than mouth the words silently as I stared at the smartphone in my hand. I should have asked it in an outraged shout. It was the obvious response given the short tenure in my new job and its low position on the hierarchy totem pole. Instead I fell back on the usual way I received orders when I was Major Daniel T. Court in a Canadian military intelligence unit.
“Let me see if I understand you. A U.S. military transport plane has gone down in the Arctic and you want me involved in the recovery. Is that the bottom line?”
There was a brief grunt from the Deputy Minister. “Briefing room. Five minutes.” The phone icon on my phone greened out. I reached for my beret only to touch the bare top of my desk. I was no longer in uniform unless you count a dark gray suit, white shirt, tie and shined shoes as the uniform of the day for workers on Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Canada. No beret. Still, an order was an order and I rushed out the door of my small office to get to the briefing on time.
Let’s get back to the question. Why me? I retired from the Canadian Armed Forces only six months ago and immediately was tapped by a contact in the federal government to fill a newly-created position in the offices of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. My first day in this job was five months ago, on Monday of the first work week in February.
My title was Special Security Advisor to the Minister. At the time, it was carefully explained to me. There already was a National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister. I was not, in any way, the equal of this person or even in her league. I was attached to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, a very important person but not the PM. The ‘special’ in my title, in other words, didn’t mean I was ‘special’ good or ‘special’ valuable. I was ‘special’ because I was not particularly valued. I was special like a trailer hitch is special to a car. Good to have around in case you want something done that doesn’t fit into a tailored cubbyhole.
Why me? Why would the people far above want to reach down to get me involved in such a situation? Maybe, it was because I am ex-military. At retirement, I held the rank of major with the PPCLI, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, one of the most storied units of the Canadian Armed Forces. Also, I was a former member of JTF2, Joint Task Force 2, the premier special forces brigade. I was trained in Arctic warfare. All that gave me some validity, I suppose, but I had no training in search and rescue, none as a paramedic and knew very little about military aircraft except having flown in a lot of them.
“We want you on this, because you are the only person we have in the ministry with any background in what we’re facing. And we sincerely want to have a presence going forward.” These were the first things the Deputy Minister told me after I took a seat at the table in a briefing room in the minister’s office suite in the West Block of Parliament Hill. I guess that answered my question but not well.
Without getting into all the arcane details, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Canada is top dog in the Department of Global Affairs, a sprawling creature with many offices and buildings away from Parliament Hill in downtown Ottawa and abroad. I have no idea why my minister is not named Minister of Global Affairs so don’t ask.
I work for the minister herself who sometimes hangs out in her Hill suite along with other alpha members of the federal government. She was busy so I often ended up taking direction from her Deputy Minister. Both of them wanted to be represented in the recovery of a huge U.S. military plane that had come down on our soil – or tundra or ice or whatever it landed on in Ellesmere Island, our northern-most region. Enough said.
I did wince at the term ‘going forward,’ which is a particularly dumb, fairly recent addition to one of our official languages. Sylvester Archambault, the deputy minister, was speaking in English to the dozen people around the table. At any moment, however, he would switch into French. The bilingual ability of virtually everyone on Parliament Hill, if not Ottawa, has always impressed me. Everywhere you go on The Hill and the city around, you hear conversations switch smoothly from one language to the other and back again. It is one of the things that makes Canada seem more European than American. Of course, in many parts of Europe, citizens switch fluently through four or five languages but we do our part in this multi-lingual world. Except for that ‘going forward’ blather.
The deputy’s eyes shifted from me to the rest of the group. “Here is what we know. The plane is a C-5M Super Galaxy, made by Lockheed Martin. It is huge, the biggest military transport in use by the US Air Force. The thing is big enough to carry five helicopters or six armoured cars. It crashed but there are survivors. How many, we don’t know.”
“Jesus.” The interjection came from one of the Assistant Deputy Ministers, the one responsible for the ministry’s budget. “How the hell are we going to carry all that stuff out…”
“Mr. Baxter. I wish you would hold all your questions for later,” the Deputy said with evident exasperation. Baxter’s lips clamped shut and his face flushed.
“But, just to keep you happy,” the Deputy added, “There is apparently no cargo aboard this plane. Washington tells us it was carrying just people. There are infantry soldiers aboard, apparently hitching a ride home from training duties near or in Ukraine, along with a small number of civilian passengers.”
There were frowns on the foreheads of more than half the people at the table. “Yes, I know,” Archambault added as he noted the consternation. “That’s a lot of plane just to carry a relative handful of passengers. But if the Americans want to waste fuel, that’s their problem. Right now, we have to worry about finding this plane, rescuing survivors and recovering bodies.”
A small woman sitting to the right of the deputy minister looked down at her notepad and up at the deputy. She whispered. He listened and said to the group, “Ah, yes. Our sources of information. We’re getting everything from Washington.”
One of the other women at the table raised her hand and the deputy nodded. Virginia Gault, the minister’s personal assistant, spoke in her typical, clipped manner. “Are we getting any intel from people on the plane?”
“Nothing directly. Washington says not much is getting through,” came the response from Archambault. “Our embassy is dealing with the Pentagon … a brigadier general named Parks. He told our military attaché in Washington that the pilot, co-pilot and navigator are dead.” There were gasps from around the table. “The cockpit apparently is crushed. What communications they are getting are via a satphone used by survivors. So, someone is alive back there even though the plane obviously crashed. But the communications are broken up. Something to do with the Arctic ionosphere. I don’t really understand…” The Deputy threw up his hands in a very Gallic shrug.
Ms. Gault, still holding the floor, turned her sharp eyes away from Archambault. They swivelled to me and I felt like I was caught by the blinding headlights of an oncoming truck.
“What’s Major Court doing here?” She didn’t like the creation of my job and her competitive streak was showing.
When all the eyes turned toward me, I wished I had brushed my short-cut, medium brown hair and straightened my dark blue tie. I immediately sat more erect to make the most of my five-foot-eleven-inch lean frame. Then I was embarrassed by my vanity.
The Deputy Minister had been speaking in his normal tone, level-headed and straight-forward. Now, his voice became curt. I had seen him annoyed only once before in the half dozen times I had been in his meetings. I was seeing it again.
“He is here because I invited him. We’ll be running operations out of Alert on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut. For those who haven’t met him, Major Court is the only person in the ministry that I know of that has experience in the Arctic, in the military and in intelligence. He’s familiar with communications as well.” I’m not sure where Archambault got that tidbit of background; what I knew about communications was about 10 percent more than the average 17-year-old but I wasn’t about to argue. The man was defending me. “He will be our representative on the ground.” I was glad he didn’t say ‘man on the ground’; that would have sent Virginia into a frenzy.
Well, now it was official. I tried to remember if I had taken my really-cold-weather gear with me when I packed up my belongings at my last posting. I had hit my retirement date while on secondment to Germany as an intelligence officer with NATO. Packing-up had been a slapdash affair and largely handled by a lance corporal assigned to the Officer’s Quarters on base. I still hadn’t unpacked all the boxes that had been delivered to my condo storage unit in Ottawa. I would have to rummage through my locker before heading to the farthest north part of the country.
“Why,” asked Virginia Gault, “would we send anyone to that crash site? Why not let the Americans handle their own crisis?” The question made a great deal of sense. The big, U.S. Thule air base was only about 500 miles south of Alert on the west side of Greenland. The Strategic Command there could send aircraft into next-door Ellesmere Island with our permission.
Ms. Gault had done me a favour although she certainly hadn’t meant to. In effect, she posed my first question. Why me? Inwardly, I cheered for her. Yeah, why the hell are we sending anyone to the Arctic crash site of an American plane?
Mr. Archambault brushed the question aside and motioned Gault to relinquish the floor. With a harrumph, she did so. As she sat back in her chair, the deputy simply said. “It’s our territory. Our people are going and we are in charge. Major Court will see to that. We’ll tell Thule when we locate the crash. Last thing we want at this time is American planes flying over our territory.”
I thought the deputy was being disingenuous; U.S. flights share our air space all the time. There was something going on in our cross-border relationship that was not only new and strange, it was scary.
The meeting wrapped up minutes later without much more information being imparted. I was still in my seat, trying to understand my role, when the deputy minister spoke. “Mr. Court. Come with me.”