When the Royal Canadian Air Force retires the fleet of CH-124 Sea King helicopters that has served them since the early ‘60s, a memorial of sorts will take place complete with flypast and ceremony.
But, former Sea King pilot Jim Newton wants to see two of his fellow airmen honoured as well – Bob Henderson and Wally Sweetman, who were killed on April 28, 1994, when a fire broke out aboard the Sea King they were flying, crashing into a hillside near Saint John, N.B.
“It was brutal,” Newton recalls of the crash.
“They were two of our mentors, people that we totally looked up to,” he says of the pair who trained him as members of 443 Squadron in Pat Bay. “It was completely demoralizing.”
|Wally Sweetman, a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force, was killed in April of 1994 when the helicopter he was piloting with squadron mate Bob Henderson crashed near Saint John, New Brunswick. (Contributed/Jim Newton)
In honour of their service, Newton wrote to the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure in late spring requesting a sign be erected on the side of the Pat Bay Highway with their names.
Travelling through California on a road trip with his kids earlier this year, Newton was struck by how many signs he passed memorializing American veterans.
“I couldn’t get it out of my brain to do one for Bob and Wally,” he says.
|Members of the Royal Canadian Air Force perform maintenance on a member of the CH-124 Sea King helicopter fleet aboard HMCS Annapolis in 1993. (Contributed/Jim Newton)
The response from the government has been slow – Newton had hoped to have something ready to coincide with the retirement parade Dec. 1 – but he is not letting that deter him, particularly now that he has the support of Henderson’s widow, Sharyl-Ann.
“Bob was a very dedicated pilot,” she says. “He always told me he would never get in an aircraft he didn’t feel safe in, so I never anticipated something like that would happen.”
Originally from Nova Scotia – where half the Sea King fleet was based – the couple had made Victoria their home when Bob was stationed at 443.
Suddenly left widowed with three teenage children, Sharyl-Ann said she never considered leaving the Island. It was at her cottage in Nova Scotia this summer where she got the call from Newton asking if she would be in favour of the project.
Her response: “Of course, Bob would be so honoured.”
|Jim Newton (left) stands with Sharyl-Ann Henderson, whose late husband Bob was killed in a helicopter crash near Saint John, New Brunswick while on duty with the Royal Canadian Air Force. The pair are trying to get a memorial sign erected along the Pat Bay Highway in honour of Bob and fellow pilot Wally Sweetman, members of 443 Squadron in Victoria, who were mentors to Newton as a young pilot. (Contributed/Jim Newton)
Other people move on because it doesn’t mean that much to them, she says, of losing a loved one. And, being a military wife she thinks the grieving process has taken longer because “you get used to them being away for long periods of time” and forget they won’t be coming home in a few months time.
“Sometimes you think no one even remembers,” she says over the phone some 25 years later.
“When your husband dies like that, it changes your whole future and you live with it every day.”
Sharyl-Ann says driving along Pat Bay Highway and seeing a sign dedicated to Bob and Wally would be “a nice reminder” but stresses all serving members who have died on duty need to be acknowledged.
At the time of the crash there was some controversy surrounding the safety of the helicopters, then more than 30 years old.
“They should have been retired a long time ago,” Newton says of the Sea Kings, passionate about getting the memorial in place, a small offering to the two men who shaped who he became.
“I want a permanent memorial sign,” he says. “They were two of the best pilots in the country.”