Defence Minister Peter MacKay used one of only three search-and-rescue helicopters available in Newfoundland to transport him from a vacation spot last year, CTV News has learned.

MacKay was picked up at a private salmon fishing lodge along the Gander River last July by a Canadian Forces Cormorant helicopter.

Military sources said the order to collect MacKay came from the defence minister's own office.

"This is not a common practice . . . this is the only time a search-and-rescue asset was used as shuttle service," a source told CTV News.

The Department of National Defence has three Cormorant helicopters based out of Gander, N.L., which are expected to cover a massive region of eastern Canada 24 hours a day.

According to the National Defence website: "9 Wing Gander is responsible for providing search and rescue services throughout Newfoundland and Labrador as well as northeastern Quebec," which the military calls "one of the busiest search and rescue regions in Canada."

MacKay's office defended the move, saying it was an opportunity for the defence minister to see the helicopters' search-and-rescue abilities up close.

"After cancelling previous efforts to demonstrate their search-and-rescue capabilities to Minister MacKay over the course of three years, the opportunity for a simulated search and rescue exercise finally presented itself in July of 2010," a statement from MacKay's office said.

"As such, Minister MacKay cut his personal trip to the area short to participate in this Cormorant exercise."

However, military sources say no search-and-rescue demonstration was planned until the very day MacKay's office made the request to pick him up.

DND documents say the total annual cost per flying hour is $32,232 to operate a Cormorant helicopter, and MacKay's flight was about 30 minutes long.

Opposition critics said MacKay had other options.

"The minister has plenty of opportunities to get demonstrations of search and rescue . . . so that doesn't fit in with the fishing camp," NDP defence critic Jack Harris said.

Liberal MP Scott Simms of Newfoundland said MacKay could have hired a private helicopter to take him to an airport if he needed one.

"He decides he needs a limo to pick him up, and the limo he decides to choose to pick him up is the one that was designed to save lives," he said.

MacKay's office refused to say who owned the private fishing lodge and who else was there, but did say none of those involved had business dealings with the government.

With a report from CTV Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife