RCAF considers putting VH-71s into service to cover mid-life Cormorant update
Posted on March 10, 2015 by Vertical Mag
Facing a mid-life update of its AgustaWestland CH-149 Cormorants and the prospect of having one or two out of service at any given time to accommodate it, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) is considering putting some of the erstwhile U.S. presidential Lockheed Martin VH-71 Kestrel variants it acquired in 2011 into service.
In 2005, the U.S. Navy chose the VH-71s as replacements for the Sikorsky VH-3D Sea Kings and VH-60N White Hawks operated by Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1). Four years later, the new Obama administration pulled the plug when program costs for the 23 aircraft had doubled to US$13 billion. Nine, including two heavily-instrumented for certification, had been delivered to the Navy by a Lockheed Martin-led team in partnership with AgustaWestland and Bell Helicopter — and it was those aircraft that Canada purchased for a fire-sale C$164 million in 2011.
The official RCAF line from the outset was that the Kestrels would be strictly for spares. “This package is considered an excellent one-time opportunity for the . . . Canadian Forces to address long-standing CH-149 Cormorant fleet availability issues related to the availability of spare parts,” the Department of National Defence (DND) said in a statement at the time.
“We bought them for spares and that was the intent,” BGen Phil Garbutt, Director of Air Force Development, acknowledged in a recent Vertical interview. “We bought them specifically to ensure that we had sufficient life-blood of spares for the fleet and with the intended purpose of bringing up the reliability and serviceability numbers for the Cormorant. And it has served that purpose.”
The original contract for 15 search-and-rescue (SAR) CH-149s was based on the DND’s ability to afford an appropriate number of aircraft being ready to fly at any one time. Despite improvements by AgustaWestland and IMP Aerospace (the Cormorants’ in-service support provider), Garbutt said, “We’ve never seen that level of serviceability and therefore we’ve had to make some pretty tough decisions.”
The key decision was to withdraw Cormorants from 8 Wing Trenton, Ont., and redeploy them to 9 Wing Gander, Nfld. and 14 Wing Greenwood, N.S. The balance of the current fleet of 14 (one was lost to a crash during a night training exercise with a Canadian Coast Guard ship off Nova Scotia in July 2006) is at 19 Wing Comox, B.C.
That left Trenton, at the heart of a vast region which includes swaths of the Great Lakes and the North, with a SAR mix of Bell CH-146 Griffons and older Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules. Garbutt said the Griffons have been doing “great work” but have “challenges” operating at night and over water as well as limited mission endurance. “It is a tactical aviation helicopter; it was not designed to be a search-and-rescue helicopter,” he pointed out. “Had it competed in the Canadian SAR helicopter [CSH] competition back in the late ‘90s, it would not have been a compliant helicopter. But it is what it is. We do want to return to an environment where we have a CSH-compliant helicopter operating at all four bases.”
Garbutt noted that the withdrawal of Cormorants from Trenton had demonstrated that 15 were not enough to cover the country’s requirements — hence the prospect of pulling at least some of the VH-71s out of the spares inventory. “Can you strike a nice balance between that cache of spares and possibly converting a few of those aircraft over into flying assets?” Garbutt asked theoretically. “It’s an option that we are examining as part of the analysis for the Cormorant mid-life update.”
The update, which should enable the RCAF to keep flying its mainstay SAR platform until about 2025, includes an electro-optics package which can be critical to successful SAR missions in degraded weather, as well as navigation and communications improvements and modifications to the patient-treatment area to maximize space and improve efficiency. Supplemental oxygen systems are also part of the package for operations above 10,000 feet, and while the allowable maximum gross weight is being increased to 15,000 kilograms (33,070 pounds), no engine enhancements are being contemplated. Not included in the mid-life update is a possible Cormorant simulator.
Asked whether the work would be done in Canada or at AgustaWestland facilities in England or Italy, Garbutt said that while a lot of it depends on what the solution would be, the government’s procurement strategy, and a follow-on “value proposition” guide argues for the work being done domestically. Jeremy Tracy, Ottawa-based head of region-Canada for AgustaWestland, told Vertical that the company’s “exclusive arrangement” with IMP for the update and conversion meant that work “would be completed in Canada” in accordance with the government’s requirements.
AgustaWestland has been lobbying for some time to have seven of the Kestrels configured as Cormorants. Tracy told Vertical during a visit to the company’s facility in Yeovil, England, that the added capability would not only facilitate full SAR capability to Trenton but also be a useful sovereignty tool in the North. Basing the helicopters full-time in the Arctic probably would be impractical, but an air transportation kit which was part of the U.S. would enable rapid loading into a Boeing CC-177 Globemaster III transport at Trenton for northern deployment.
The idea of operating the Kestrels isn’t new. Nearly two years ago, when he was still Minister of National Defence, Peter MacKay actually ordered the RCAF to reconsider its “spares only” position. At the time, MacKay was wrestling with Auditor General Michael Ferguson’s scathing critique of the RCAF’s entire SAR program. Among other things, he said the DND simply “does not have enough suitable . . . aircraft.”
When Ferguson recommended that the DND “give priority to the acquisition of new aircraft that are best suited for search-and-rescue activities and ensure that it has sufficient numbers” for its mission, the DND replied that it was planning to purchase new SAR platforms. These, however, would be a fixed-wing replacement for the older Hercules and the six remaining 50-year-old de Havilland Canada CC-115 Buffalo aircraft based in Comox, B.C. “With respect to SAR helicopter fleets,” the DND continued, “improvements have recently been made to the availability of the Cormorant fleet, allowing it to fly a record number of hours . . . and the Griffon fleet has undergone enhancements, which are allowing it to provide a more robust SAR capability.”
In a briefing note prepared for MacKay’s successor, Rob Nicholson, and released to The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, DND said that expanding the main SAR helicopter fleet by converting the Kestrels would break a DND commitment that they would be used only as a parts source for the Cormorants. Dan Ross, the Assistant Deputy Minister (Materiel) at DND, had stated unequivocally in December 2010 that the Kestrel acquisition was “not to procure flyable assets.” Rather, it was a unique opportunity “to procure a package of spares and assembled spares (airframes which were left in varying states of assembly) to support the existing Cormorant search-and-rescue fleet.”
The RCAF did eventually assess the feasibility of putting at least some Kestrels into service but evidently was concerned at the time that the airframes are uncertified and lack valid airworthiness certificates. The briefing note states that the use of them as a parts source has saved the DND $24 million when compared with having to purchase them commercially.
Since the Kestrels have an average of only 30 hours on them, including one which logged more than 100 hours of qualifying time, there is an argument that they can be readily converted. That would facilitate both the Cormorant MLU and a return to Trenton. Tracy confirmed that AgustaWestland and IMP had concluded, after detailed study, that conversion would be quicker, cheaper and simpler than buying new airframes. “A complete fleet of Cormorants, to the CH149B standard for SAR, would enable crew and parts commonality across Canada for the next 20-plus years,” he told Vertical. “Then there’s the proven capability of the Cormorant, which has been demonstrated repeatedly over the past 12 years.”