Shearwater – the Next Chapter
Jul 15, 2009

An airfield on the eastern shore of Halifax Harbour has served for most of the past eight decades as an important part of Canada’s network of defence sites. Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Shearwater is the country’s second-oldest military aerodrome and has hangars and other buildings dating back half a century. The structures were designed and constructed to building codes long obsolescent. Since May 2007, tens of millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on upgrading CFB Shearwater’s aging facilities. By the time the work is completed in late 2009, the Department of National Defence (DND) will have spent $170 million to revitalize this invaluable asset.

Just over two years ago, Peter MacKay, then Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, announced several construction projects at 12 Wing Shearwater. This included an estimate that more than 1,500 jobs would be created by the federal ­government’s investment in the base.

“This is a major economic benefit for the province of Nova Scotia, and shows Canada’s new government’s commitment to maintaining a vital military presence in the region,” said Minister MacKay. “Investing in Shearwater will generate significant employment and provide a major boost for the local economy.”

According to the Department of National Defence, the Shearwater facilities had deteriorated to the point it could no longer meet operational requirements. It was determined that new heliport structures and in-service support facilities would be required to fully support the Canadian Forces’ maritime helicopter fleet.

“The Department of National Defence is committed to providing the men and women of the Canadian Forces with the tools and infrastructure necessary to conduct and support maritime helicopter ­operations while continuing to ensure flight safety,” added then Chief of the Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier.

An Octogenarian Airfield
Shearwater has provided continuous service longer than any other Canadian military air base. In August 1918, Naval Air Station Halifax was established by the U.S. Navy on the shores of Halifax Harbour’s Eastern ­Passage to support flying boat patrols. German U-boats had laid mines in the harbour that summer and the threat of further submarine action had to be countered.

After the First World War, the Canadian government’s Air Board took over the airfield in 1920 for civil flying operations. The Royal Canadian Air Force (formed in 1924) subsequently assumed control and named the aerodrome RCAF Station Dartmouth, and later RCAF Station Shearwater during World War II. With the integration of the Armed Forces in 1968, Shearwater became a Canadian Forces Base.

Prior to 1994, the Department of National Defence (DND) operated two bases in the Halifax-Dartmouth area: CFB Halifax and CFB Shearwater. The former supported the Atlantic naval fleet and the latter provided a base for fixed- and rotary-wing maritime aircraft operations. However, many items were on the chopping black back then, and in February 1994, DND announced that it would reduce costs by consolidating infrastructure involving the two bases. In September 1995, Shearwater lost its full airport status and only helicopter operations were conducted.

As a result of the downsizing, surplus real estate was transferred to the Shearwater Development Corporation, a local development agency. DND resumed control of the property in 1999 after the company ceased operations. Three years later, 373 hectares of surplus land at Shearwater was sold to the Canada Lands Company (CLC), a Crown Corporation, for $1.5 million.

In November 2004, DND awarded the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation a $1.8-billion contract to manufacture 28 CH-148 Cyclones and modify Canadian Forces ships for the new aircraft. A second contract, valued at $3.2 billion, was awarded for 20 years of in-service support. One of DND’s contractual obligations was to provide space within CFB Shearwater’s infrastructure for Sikorsky to establish support services.

Engineering studies determined that heliport improvements were needed at the base. The Cyclone weighs 30% more than the CH-124 Sea King and the Cyclone’s engines produce twice as much shaft horsepower, which translates to considerably more thrust being delivered to the rotor head and blades.

DND realized that some of the surplus land sold to CLC would have to be ­reacquired for the Shearwater Heliport Conversion Project. In July 2006, the two organizations completed a market-value land exchange transaction: DND received three parcels, totalling 154.83 hectares in exchange, for one parcel of 34.35 hectares, at a cost of $480,000. In September 2008, DND paid $1.65 million to reacquire 16 hectares from CLC for security purposes.  Six months later, the northeast parcel of roughly 235 hectares of land was also ­reacquired, costing taxpayers $5.77 million. Once the necessary land was under DND ownership (total bill: $7.9 million), the construction phase could begin.

Defence Construction Canada (DCC) is responsible for the CFB Shearwater ­projects. Established as a federal Crown Corporation in 1951, DCC’s mandate is “to provide high-quality, timely and efficient contracting, contract management, environmental, and related services to support the Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence in the long-term development and management of facilities infrastructure.”

A Challenging Project
In May 2007, DCC awarded Toronto-based Bird Construction a $98.3-million contract to build the facilities. “It’s the largest single contract that we’ve awarded in our 56-year history,” said DCC President and CEO Ross Nicholls. “These facilities are essential, both from an operational and a contractual point of view, so we came up with a unique procurement process – ­featuring three buildings in the same tender – and compressed the total procurement time, working closely with the DND team. That enabled us to add ­significant value, in order to award the ­contract on a very tight ­deadline.”

According to DCC Site Operations Manager Marc Brophy, the 12 Wing Common Support Facility (CSF), which has been completed, was “a challenging yet highly rewarding project to spearhead.” Brophy pointed out that the CSF – the most complex of the three in-service support facilities – involved extensive interior work. The contractor enclosed the building before winter, allowing trades people to labour protected during the months when temperatures dropped to –20°C or lower.

The first phase of construction of the CSF included demolition of the old, asbestos-laden hangar and a mass excavation, as deep as seven metres in some places. After preparatory work was finished, Colonel J. Bruce Ploughman, Commander of 12 Wing Shearwater, laid the ceremonial first brick of the new, 12,100-square-metre facility. The three-storey utilitarian design incorporates structural steel, concrete tilt-up panels, brick/aluminium panel cladding, and a modified bitumen roof. DND tenants are expected to move in by the fall of 2009.

To meet the tight project timeline, DCC, Bird Construction, and its local contractor partner in Nova Scotia, Rideau Construction, have been hard at work to complete the other two support facilities. Foundations were poured and finished in the fall and winter of 2007/2008 and the remaining construction has progressed steadily. The fact that erected structural steel and masonry, of unfinished buildings as high as 43 metres, withstood Hurricane Kyle’s 120 km/h winds in September 2008 speaks highly of the design and the contractor’s work.

The total area (24,338 m2) of hangar floors, offices, workshops, and other rooms of the support facilities is as large as three Canadian football fields. With a clear span of 70metres and a floor-to-roof height of just over 15m, the new hangars can accommodate up to six helicopters. Pre-assembled hangar trusses, weighing 90 metric tons each, were bolted together in sections and lifted into position in six operations. Each lift took less than a day to complete and decreased the structural steel erection phase of the project by almost four weeks.

The project was designed to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver standards. Features include a rain water collection system for washing aircraft, and a unique fire suppression system known as HI-FOG. The system incorporates stainless steel sprinkler heads installed in the floor that produce a fine water mist, combining the extinguishing characteristic of water and the penetrative quality of a gas. These hangars are the first in the world with the HI-FOG system installed in the “slab on grade” (the concrete floor).

Nearing completion, the CFB Shearwater facilities will be fully operational prior to the arrival of the first Cyclone in late 2010. By the time the full Cyclone fleet is operational in 2013, the venerable Sea King will have operated from CFB Shearwater for 50 years. The $170 million investment to replace the base’s worn-out infrastructure will no doubt result in a positive return for decades to come.

Blair Watson has written technical manuals for the U.S. Navy, reports for Canadian Airport Authorities, and articles for numerous aviation magazines.
© FrontLine Defence Magazine 2009