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Armstrong: CF Selection Policy Flops

The Canadian Forces likely has a policy guiding helicopter selection – but it isn’t working. The CF has already lost its first super-expensive Cormorant and with it three crew members due to crew errors and that helicopter’s complexity. (Three other crew members survived.)


August 6, 2008
By Ken Armstrong

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Forces Make a Mess of Helicopter Procurement

The Canadian Forces likely has a policy guiding helicopter selection – but it isn’t working. The CF has already lost its first super-expensive Cormorant and with it three crew members due to crew errors and that helicopter’s complexity. (Three other crew members survived.)

The CF bought ten Chinooks in the early 1970s for heavy-lift operations. I know because my next door neighbor in the military was killed ferrying the first one to Canada when it came apart. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Chinook is a fine, well proven helicopter. Unfortunately, our misguided military/politicians subsequently sold them for pennies on the dollar stating they were too expensive to operate. The Dutch bought them for a song, invested a million dollars in each and upgraded them in many ways – including glass cockpits! I instructed with those Chinooks in the Netherlands and the Dutch are exceedingly thankful for Canadian taxpayers’ generosity. Now, the latest crop of politicians with fertilizer-like input from the military are buying more Chinooks – at premium prices of course.

Previously, our fine senior officers decided the SAR Labradors (CH-46s) had to go because they were too costly to maintain. Mind you, our neighbors to the south implemented a D-CUP program (I find it easy to remember that acronym for some reason) whereby they invested $2.5 million into each of their hundreds of CH-46s and will be flying them into the next decade with their many refinements – saving billions of dollars on new helicopter purchases. It should be noted the world’s highest-time helicopter is a 1962 Columbia Helicopters CH-46 with over 50,000 flight hours!  Moreover, we civilians work our machines much harder and often fly them 12 hours a day – what do we know that the military doesn’t?

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The Labradors were eventually replaced with Cormorants, and these EH101 derivatives turned into multibillion-dollar duds.  Cracking windshields and flight limitations due to cracking tail rotor hubs and other maintenance issues keep a high percentage of the fleet grounded. The SAR squadron in Trenton, Ont. grounded its fleet and a Comox Cormorant’s horrendous rotor wash recently injured a firefighter on Vanvouver Island who was attempting to rescue someone in a deep ravine.

On another debacle, the military and politicians rave on about the Sea King’s maintenance issues, but the same civilian helicopters (Sikorsky S-61) soldier on, flying many more hours and virtually trouble-free. The problem here is not the helicopter but rather the military pilots’ and technicians’ qualifications compared to civilian aviation aircrews (but those are issues for another article). For instance, the last three Sea Kings destroyed were due to CAF personnel. Two were pilot error and one was technician/maintenance error. Incidently, senior CF technical personnel advise that their biggest problem is parts supply from the few companies the politicos awarded contracts to.

Recently our government ordered Sikorsky S-92s to replace the Sea Kings. Sikorsky makes good, strong products (i.e., the Sea King), but the continuing conflicts in the Middle East are creating parts and production problems easily foreseen by civilian operators. Now, it is uncertain if and when we will get these heavy lifters since the contract is under renegotiation as this is written. Should have listened and stayed with the Sea Kings, troops – come to think of it, you may have to.

I apologize to the shrewd civilian helicopter operators who are drooling at the potential release of these relatively low-time, underutilized Sea Kings and look forward to these machines reaching the bidding block ASAP. However, thinking as a Canadian and a taxpayer, I take exception to the methodology our representatives exercise in helicopter purchases. From Jean Chrétien’s outright purchase of 100 Bell 412s without a bidding process to the initial purchases of EH101 Cormorants, then cancellation, then repurchase, it is one financial fiasco after another. Political patronage and pie-in-the-sky capabilities are beyond Canada’s fiduciary capabilities. The Americans have more than 50 per cent of the world’s wealth and Canada less than 3 per cent, so we should be concerned when the U.S. is keeping and refurbishing mature machines while we jump out of the pot into the fire with unproven, overly expensive new products with supply issues. An advisory board should be set up of learned helicopter professionals who can assess realistic CF needs versus wants. Experience is of prime importance in the selection process and most CF personnel and politicians have proven they don’t have the requisite skills.


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