As a young man fortunate enough to grow up in Thunder Bay, Ont., I had the opportunity to immerse myself in the great outdoors, becoming more than a little proficient at navigating various fishing and pleasure craft on the waterways that dot the pristine northwestern Ontario landscape.
It’s a pastime I still love today and having lived near and travelled on a variety of impressive Canadian waterways and shorelines, I’m quite familiar with the important role the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) plays on a daily basis with its team on the water and by helicopter. It’s precisely why I was pleased to hear of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s plan to get the ball rolling on a fleet upgrade for the CCG.
The landmark decision in late August to replace the CCG’s aging fleet with new, technologically advanced aircraft couldn’t have come at a better time and it reflects a concerted effort on behalf of the federal Tories to raise the bar when it comes to the country’s key aviation assets.
This decision follows closely on the heels of another significant procurement announcement made earlier this year in the fixed-wing realm – the replacement of the aging 45-year-old CC-115 Buffalos and enhancements to the search and rescue (SAR) fleet. The on-again, off-again procurement process with fixed-wing SAR needs to happen and the decision to replace the Buffalos and enhance SAR reflects a renewed commitment by the federal government to key aviation resources (for more information see, “Searching for an answer,” pg. 36, Wings magazine, Sept/Oct 2012).
The CCG refurbishment is a bold yet wise move and has been hinted at for some time, first being chronicled in the March/April 2010 issue of Helicopters magazine. The CCG fleet currently consists of 23 helicopters and is broken down into 17 light lift helicopters – 14 Eurocopter Bo-105s and three Bell 296L Longrangers – and five medium Bell 212s. It also includes a Sikorsky heavy lift S-61N. The refurbishment plan calls for 24 aircraft of both light and medium configurations with the precise mix yet to be confirmed.
With some 243,792 kilometres of coastline and a land mass that includes more than 755,000 square kilometres of water, Canada’s CCG fleet plays a critical role in supporting key programs that contribute to the safety, national security and sovereignty of Canadians. Helicopter missions include everything from flying to remote sites in Canada to supporting construction and maintenance of coast guard communication sites to providing at-sea support for ice monitoring. Fisheries enforcement, environmental response, medical evacuation and SAR are also important missions. Bases dot the Canadian landscape, with small groupings of aircraft in Newfoundland, the Maritimes, Quebec, the West Coast and Ontario.
The new helicopters will also be easier to operate and maintain and are expected to have a service life of roughly 30 years. Technological enhancements on the aircraft will ensure smoother operational execution and safer environments for pilots and crew. Helicopter support will also be provided for the CCG’s new polar icebreaker, the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, which enters full service in 2017.
This announcement is not only a boon to important maritime and sovereignty issues, but it also benefits the Canadian helicopter industry by helping to stimulate economic growth. Shortly after the announcement, major OEMs jumped on the bidding bandwagon. The procurement body, Public Works and Government Services Canada, reported AgustaWestland, Bell Helicopter, MD Helicopters and Sikorsky had all registered their interest by the Aug. 30 deadline.
A preliminary list of contenders for fleet refurbishment has some impressive names on it. On the light side, possible choices include Bell’s twin engine 429, Eurocopter’s EC-145 and AgustaWestland’s AW119ke (or the AW109). Medium stalwarts worth consideration include Bell’s versatile 412 EP Griffon (hard at work here and abroad with the Royal Canadian Armed Forces), Eurocopter’s EC-175, Agusta- Westland’s popular AW139, and Sikorsky’s versatile S-76D. Sikorsky’s S-92 and Eurocopter’s EC-225 are ideal candidates for an Arctic Sovereignty role as deployment on the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker.
As Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield aptly points out, “Helicopter air support is a crucial component to the delivery of coast guard services and the maintenance of public safety.” The commitment to refurbishing the CCG is a positive move that will not only help stimulate growth in the Canadian helicopter industry, but also ensure the protection and ongoing support of those who are employed in key maritime industries.
For those of us who enjoy – or work – on the waterways and coastal areas of this great country, it means peace of mind and safer days ahead.