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Canadian Coast Guard helicopter plan facing delays

Jan. 30, 2014, Ottawa - A plan to buy two dozen new helicopters for Canada’s coast guard has become the latest federal procurement project to run into trouble, a situation made all the more worrisome after a deadly crash in September 2013.


January 30, 2014
By Postmedia News

On Sept. 9, a Canadian Coast Guard helicopter crashed into the Arctic
Ocean, killing the pilot, the captain of the coast guard icebreaker
Amundsen and a University of Manitoba scientist.

The
Transportation Safety Board says investigators are still working to
determine what caused the crash, an investigation that could take as
much as a year.

Until the investigation is complete, it won’t be
known whether mechanical problems were to blame, or if there was some
other reason.

Yet Rob Huebert, an Arctic expert at the University
of Calgary who has flown on coast guard helicopters numerous times over
the years, says the crash should still serve as a wake-up call on the
need for replacements.

Documents show the coast guard’s 21
helicopters are on average 30 years old, and that 95 per cent had
exceeded their service lives.

“You don’t think it’s not in the
back of their minds?” Huebert said of senior coast guard officials,
adding: “Yes, (the helicopters) are 30 years old. Yes, you’re operating
in a very unforgiving environment. And yes, you make any mistake, you
have any mechanical problems, and people die.”

Internal documents
obtained by Postmedia News show the coast guard had been hoping to begin
receiving replacements starting this fall, but that is looking
increasingly unlikely.

A competition for up to 20 light
helicopters was launched last June, with the idea that the first new
aircraft would be delivered within 12 months of a contract being
awarded.

But the project has ground to a halt after one
manufacturer, Eurocopter, filed a lawsuit against the government
following allegations another company, Bell Helicopters, had been given
an unfair advantage.

Spokesmen for both the government and Bell
Helicopters said they would not comment because the case is before the
courts, while Eurocopter did not return phone calls Friday.

The
government is also refusing to say when it will launch a competition for
new medium helicopters, saying only that a final request for proposals
is being prepared.

Those helicopters won’t be delivered until 18 months after a contract is awarded.

Huebert noted the plan to purchase new coast guard helicopters isn’t the only federal procurement project that has run aground.

Some others include:


Delays in the delivery of new ship-borne helicopters to replace the air
force’s ancient Sea Kings. The government recently announced it would
begin retiring the Sea Kings in 2015, and plug the gap with interim
aircraft until full replacements could be delivered in 2018.


Ongoing questions over whether the government will move ahead on plans
to replace Canada’s CF-18s by sole-sourcing F-35 stealth fighters, or
hold an open competition.

– A cancelled plan to buy 108 new heavy armoured vehicles for the army.

– Uncertainty over when new search-and-rescue airplanes will be purchased after several previous efforts failed.

– Concerns about budgets and schedules for several national shipbuilding projects.

“There’s
something seriously wrong with the procurement system,” Huebert said,
“and as a result the various people with the boots on the ground just
bear down and figure out: ‘OK, how do we make sure we maintain this as
well as we can.’

“The personnel who maintain these do such an
outstanding job, we take it for granted,” Huebert added. “The problem
you come into is that ultimately you start running into some issues that
cannot be repaired.”


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