DND knew Cyclones wouldn’t measure up
By The Canadian Press
Nov. 4, 2013, Ottawa - Canadian air force evaluators warned nearly a decade ago that the CH-148 Cyclone helicopter might not measure up in terms of engine performance, acoustic noise and its ability to resist electronic interference, The Canadian Press has learned.
By The Canadian Press
Previously unreleased National Defence reports that date back to
September 2004, recently viewed by CP, cite a litany of concerns about
Sikorsky's plan to convert its existing S-92 helicopter for maritime and
The highly technical appraisals were
conducted by a team of dozens of air force engineers before then-prime
minister Paul Martin awarded what was at the time a $1.8-billion
Yet, despite the concerns and the fact
that some aspects of Sikorsky's plan were declared "non-compliant," the
bid was allowed to proceed based on the assumption the company would be
able to overcome the existing problems.
The red flags that were set down by
engineers, based on some 475 different evaluation criteria, proved
prescient in identifying major issues that have plagued and ultimately
delayed the program to the point where the Harper government is now
considering scrapping it.
Nonetheless, the program has progressed
significantly since the evaluation documents were first produced nearly
10 years ago, Paul Jackson, a spokesman for the U.S. aircraft maker,
"Sikorsky has either demonstrated ready
solutions or fully resolved any technical issues raised in early
technical reports," Jackson said in an email.
"The CH-148 Cyclone is the world's most
advanced maritime helicopter, bar none. We continue to make solid
progress toward completing this program and delivering unrivalled
capability to the Canadian Forces."
Officials from the Department of National
Defence did not respond to a detailed series of written questions
provided Friday about the technical reports, as well as the possible
implications of scrapping the deal.
The Harper government, which is looking
at other helicopters, is expected to decide later this month whether to
continue with the program.
In terms of the evaluation
of the Cyclone engine's airworthiness, the reports show the company was
given the benefit of the doubt in 2004 since it had not yet built a
military version of the aircraft.
"Sikorsky did not provide some of the
(proof of certification) material as required," said the evaluation.
"However, the material presented is generally judged to meet the intent
of the (Maritime Helicopter Requirement Specifications) requirement."
Evaluators were skeptical about the amount of testing hours devoted to the engine, and rated the risk to the bid as "medium."
Years later, however, the issue
resurfaced when it became clear the heavier military requirements made
the Cyclones sluggish and less efficient in the air. In 2010, Sikorsky
announced it would upgrade the engine to a more powerful model, the
CT7-8A7, and the Harper government agreed to spend an additional $117
million to support the plan.
Evaluators also raised questions about
the helicopter's ability to stay airborne in the event of a catastrophic
loss of oil. The report noted that the S-92 "failed on the initial test
and did not meet the 30-minute" run-dry requirement — something that
would become significant in 2009 with the crash of an S-92 off
Newfoundland that killed 17 oil workers and flight crew.
A Transportation Safety Board
investigation concluded that two of three titanium studs that secure the
oil filter bowl assembly to the helicopter's main gearbox sheared off
mid-flight. The board's final report said the resulting loss of oil
pressure was one of a "complex web" of factors that contributed to the
It also recommended that all Sikorsky S-92 helicopters be able to run without oil in their main gearboxes for 30 minutes.
Defence sources recently questioned the
Cyclone's ability to withstand intense electromagnetic fields, the kind
generated by military-grade radar. In 2004, air force engineers raised
questions about the interference, which has the potential to blank out
"The (High Intensity Radiated Fields) has
still not been rectified to match up with the (Maritime Helicopter
Requirement Specifications)," one of the evaluators wrote on Sept. 8,
Since Sikorsky had not yet converted the
helicopter to military specifications, it acknowledged the government
would have to trust it to meet the requirement.
"The bidder has stated
here that the testing cannot be completed until final aircraft assembly,
at a proper site (in this case Patuxent River, Maryland, USA or
The evaluation report also raised
questions about acoustic noise and the Cyclone's ability to land and
take off from the pitching deck of a warship at sea.
In some cases, Sikorsky told National
Defence it would provide more information after the contract was signed,
leading one evaluator to note that "it was up to DND management to
decide if DND is ready to accept the risk of not having a (basis of
compliance) as clearly defined as possible before signing a contract
with the winning bidder."
After Sikorsky won the contract, rival
bidder AgustaWestland cried foul, citing politics: 10 years before the
Martin government, Jean Chretien's Liberals cancelled a contract with
the company to buy EH-101 helicopters. In 2004, the company offered up
the AW-101 — a variant of the original, but still close enough to be
Alan Williams, the senior defence
bureaucrat in charge of the Cyclone purchase at the time, said
AgustaWestland's bid was "non-compliant" and dismissed as nonsense any
suggestion that the political fix was in for Sikorsky.
"They blew it. They were clearly
non-compliant and they know it," Williams said in an interview with The
Canadian Press. "They didn't do a good enough job."
Williams' comment was met with a firm
denial by AgustaWestland, which said in a statement late Sunday that "at
no point did the Government of Canada declare that the AW101 was
"The aircraft met all of the performance
and equipment requirements of the original Request for Proposals, then
and now, and Mr. Williams knows this," the statement said.
What exactly the company did wrong,
Williams was not prepared to say, but he insisted the Liberal government
of the day never exerted pressure on him to favour one bid over
He acknowledged the concerns presented in the pre-qualification report, but noted that it was just the first kick at the tires.
"Unless it's a really, really black and white thing, in the pre-qualification you're not going to eliminate people."
Williams said he pressured engineers in a
number of closed-door meetings to assure him that Sikorsky could make
the leap from civilian to maritime military helicopter.
"They said: 'It's not a slam dunk.' But
the thinking was that it could be done, and so I didn't feel we didn't
have cause to rule them non-compliant even though I knew that this
wasn't a slam dunk."
Williams acknowledged that he could be blamed for "picking something that turns out to be non-deliverable."
He left the defence purchasing office
shortly after the contract award, but added that had he been there in
2006 when it became apparent the program was in trouble, he would have
recommended it be cancelled.
"If the government thought the contract
was non-deliverable, it did the one thing it should never have done, it
let (Sikorsky) off the hook," Williams said. "It would have been much
smarter to do what they might do now" and cancel it.
When former defence minister Peter MacKay
described the Cyclones as the "worst" procurement in government
history, "quite frankly he made it into the worst procurement," Williams
The Cyclones were supposed to be on the flight line in 2008, but Sikorsky has delivered only a handful of choppers for testing.
The federal government has refused to
accept those helicopters, currently parked at the Canadian Forces
facility in Shearwater, N.S., on the basis they are "non-compliant."
Former auditor general Sheila Fraser
trashed the program a few years ago in a report that set out in
painstaking detail how Martin's Liberal government agreed to buy what
are essentially undeveloped helicopters.
The theme cropped up again
last month in a leaked independent report that the Harper government
commissioned. The analysis said the helicopters were essentially still
in development and the federal government should attempt to salvage the
program within 90 days.
So far, the federal government claims it is owed $88.6 million by Sikorsky in penalties for contract violations.