The Sorry Saga of Fixed Wing Search and Rescue
Mar 15, 2013

The procurement of Fixed Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) aircraft has waxed and waned for over a decade. In 2003, the Canadian Forces operated ten CC-130E Hercules (E and H model aircraft), and six CC-115 Buffalos in the Fixed Wing SAR role (from 14 Wing Greenwood, 8 Wing Trenton, 17 Wing Winnipeg, and 19 Wing Comox). At the time, the Buffalo fleet and legacy Hercules aircraft were approaching the end of their service lives, and by October of that year, a FWSAR procurement project was announced as a priority by the Liberal government. Under Minister John McCallum, DND began working on a Statement of Operational Requirements (SOR) for the FWSAR Project.

This was presented to the Treasury Board Secretariat for approval in early 2004, and $1.3 billion was allocated in the federal budget to begin the FWSAR purchase. The two contenders were the Alenia C-27J Spartan and the EADS (Airbus Military) C295 – both built in Europe but the C295 had Canadian content. Whichever aircraft was chosen, the delivery of new FWSAR aircraft was expected to begin within 12 to 18 months – in 2006. This was considered essential as the Air Force wanted to relieve its Hercules from SAR duties for the growing Afghan conflict.

So, what happened? Mounting evidence indicated that the Air Force had so favored the purchase of C-27J Spartans that the SOR was specifically written to exclude all but that aircraft. This caused EADS and others to question the fairness of the requirements. Former ADM (Materiel) Alan Williams admitted that the failure to fast-track FWSAR was because DND had developed “specifications which allow only one ­company to compete.” After the issue became politicized, the Minister was unwilling to sign the SOR.

The Air Force is said to have preferred the C-27J because perceived commonality could be a selling point to ensure procurement of Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercs. The propellers and some engine components are about the only remaining commonalities between the two aircraft.

In his short tenure as prime minister, Paul Martin promised that his government would “fast track” the FWSAR project for delivery. It all looked good for a while, but the war in Afghanistan soon pushed FWSAR aside to make way for CC-177 Globemasters, the C-130J Hercules and the CH-147 Chinooks to assume priority.

CC-115 Buffalo

Now that the Air Force had its new J-model Hercs, the political controversy over apparent sole sourcing of C-27Js became an unnecessary complication. So, when the ­Conservative government was elected in February 2006, the FWSAR Project was officially put on hold and the Project Office was dissolved.

It had become apparent that the whole project needed to be re-evaluated. Besides, there were other contenders for the FWSAR crown. Bombardier claimed that its Dash 8 series could meet the FWSAR requirements and should be considered. Lockheed Martin was considering entering its C-130J in the competition, and in January 2008, Viking Air offered its “next generation” DHC-5NG Buffalo for FWSAR.

In June 2008, the Harper government’s “Canada First Defence Strategy” promised increased funding to the military. The capability of the Canadian Forces was to be enhanced, and partnership with Canadian industry in procurement was emphasized. One of five key areas addressed by the CFDS was the acquisition of 17 FWSAR aircraft by 2015. With that, a FWSAR Project Management Office was once again set up and, as his predecessor John McCallum had done five years prior, MND Peter MacKay announced that “…there is no greater priority right now for the CF” than FSWAR. The following year, the number of required aircraft had been reduced to 15, and it was estimated that the cost would be $1.55 billion.

Demonstrating its objective to partner with industry, the government then invited the Canadian aerospace community to provide input on the FWSAR project, and this was submitted to Public Works & Government Services (PWGSC), Industry Canada, and DND to review.

In January 2010, in response to continued concern that the SOR was overly specific, the National Research Council (NRC) was tasked to conduct an independent review of the 2004 FWSAR Statement of Operational Requirements. The blue ribbon panel included three test pilots who also had many years of experience with FWSAR operations: Tim Leslie, Paul Kissmann and Bob Erdos.

In a detailed report presented in March 2010, the panel examined range requirements, cockpit field of view, rear loading ramp and spotter bubble windows (both mandatory) and SAR technician’s space. One of their principal recommendations was that the SOR be amended to better reflect a capability-based requirements rationale rather than a platform-centric approach. The aircraft also had to be equipped with the latest radar and multi-spectral electro-optical/infrared that would enable all weather day/night detection and identification.

Rather than rewritten, as some had hoped, the SOR was simply tweaked to remove the most blatant concerns.

The revised SOR still has a “southern basing” focus and contains no incentive for improved FWSAR service to the North. It must be noted that there are compelling economic reasons for not wanting to establish bases in the North – such as the vast majority of SAR incidents occur along the Canada/U.S. border and along the east and west coasts – and influencers have gone to great lengths to discredit options that include military air bases in the North.

Critics suggest this amounts to “Search and Recovery” for victims in the North, particularly during harsh temperatures.

However, with the industrial partnership requirement in mind, the competitors now had to include a Canadian In-Service Support Integrator (ISS). Alternative Service Delivery by private contractors should be considered, as should alternative basing (South and North), and different aircraft types within the same FWSAR fleet.

Encouraged by this, Bell-Boeing now offered its VTOL V-22 Osprey. And in May 2011, MND Peter MacKay (who is also minister for the National Search and Rescue Secretariat), and then Chief of the Air Staff LGen André Deschamps reiterated that FWSAR was a top procurement priority, again. In ­January 2012, the Harper government relaunched the project, with PWGSC setting up a Secretariat to consult with industry. FWSAR was back on track.

In March 2012, Treasury Board ap­proved $3.8 billion (including $1.9 billion for a 20-year In-Service Support) for Implementation Phase of the FWSAR Project.

Adapting to the new requirements, Alenia announced in May 2012 that its C-27Js would be “missionized” in Canada. In August, Lockheed Martin announced that Cascade Aerospace of Abbotsford BC (recently purchased by the Halifax-based IMP Group) would be authorized as a C-130 Heavy Maintenance Centre (the second such center in the world). And in October 2012, EADS announced it had teamed with Discovery Air in Yelllowknife, NWT, as its ISS partner so that its C295 could operate and be maintained from northern landing strips, and that the aircraft would also have Thales Canada avionics. That same month, the FWSAR Secretariat held ‘Industry Engagement’ sessions in Gatineau, Quebec.

In January 2013, a request for Letters of Interest (LOI) was posted on MERX. When asked for an update on 6 March 2013, Lucie Brosseau, PWGSC Senior Communications Advisor, issued this statement: “The FWSAR Secretariat is continuing its engagement with industry [...] Industry feedback continues to be received at this time. Further elements [...] will be released through MERX in the coming months.”

DND Public Affairs was equally innocuous in its response, saying: “[RFP] documentation is being developed, and will be shared with industry throughout the development process to find the best solutions that industry can provide to meet the Department of National Defence’s requirements and maximize benefits to Canadians.”

At a March 2013 press conference in Ottawa, Minister MacKay expressed “no small degree of frustration that we have not been able to move this project forward.” Insisting that DND is pushing this project “very hard”, he elaborated that “we need the support of the other departments to do this.”
Meanwhile as they did in 2003, the Canadian Forces continue to operate the same old Hercs and Buffs, which, as BGen Dwayne Lucas, then Chief Engineer for the Canadian Air Force, told FrontLine in 2005, “need to end up in some museums.”

Advised by the National Research Council to look for a capability-based solution to FWSAR, the government has committed to do so. Unfortunately, it appears that this has been translated into a decision to physically evaluate only the platforms, with the mission systems and sensors being evaluated “conceptually”. History has proven that making assumptions on the capabilities of mission systems is troublesome. The following platform ­contenders are preparing their FWSAR bids now.

Alenia: C-27J Spartan
With its Italian airframe, British engines and American avionics, Alenia North America – Canada has teamed up with General Dynamics, Provincial Aerospace and DRS Technologies Canada for Canadian content in its FWSAR bid. What made it the Air Force favorite was its speed and commonality with the CC-130J. It was chosen by the USAF as its medium lift transport aircraft for its ability to “access a wide range of airfields, including short, unprepared strips while transporting heavy loads.” Its rivals point out that many countries use the C-27J for transport, not FWSAR.
Bell-Boeing: V-22 Osprey
Coming to the country that invented tilt wing rotor technology (the CL-84 Dynavert in the 1970s), the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey entered the competition after the NRC review recommended that a mixed type of FWSAR fleet was possible. The V-22 combines the vertical performance of a helicopter (for both the Search and the Rescue functions) with the speed and range of a fixed wing aircraft (arriving on-scene in half the time it would take a helicopter). Unlike any of its fixed wing rivals, once it has located ­survivors, the V-22 can actually hover and rescue them. Currently, both the U.S. Marine Corps and US AFSOC (Air Force Special Operations Command) operate the tilt rotor, although not in a SAR role. The V-22 has performed multiple Casualty Evacuation (CASEVAC) and the Tactical Recovery of Aircraft (TRAP) missions where time was a critical factor and other aircraft didn’t fit the mission profile.
EADS: C295
Smaller and lighter, the European-built C295 is derived from its C235 ancestor. Its dependable Pratt and Whitney Canada engines are made in Quebec, which is its ace-in-the-hole. In addition to fuel savings, the C295’s light weight would allow it to be based at Arctic airfields, and its slow flying would be an asset in search duties. Other countries already use the C295 for the FWSAR role, including along Chile’s long coastline.
Lockheed Martin: C-130J
Its speed and range allow it to arrive unrefueled to the far reaches of Canada’s SAR regions with enough time (crew day) and fuel to remain on station to conduct the search and to “loiter” over the scene to direct rescue personnel, and drop additional supplies or equipment as required. Used by the U.S. Coast Guard in a SAR role, the U.S. Air Combat Command has also chosen it for operation in ­“contested” environments. More robust than the FWSAR requirements, and definitely one of the more expensive options, but if chosen, could also be used in military roles, like JTF2 operations.
Viking Air: DHC-5NG
This ‘next gen’ Buffalo has the others beat for Canadian content. Victoria-based Viking Air sells its Twin Otter series to coast guards around the world, but it lacks the mandatory rear ramp for SAR techs to jump from. In December 2008, Viking Air proposed to ­resurrect the old DHC-5 design with updated technology. Viking president Dave Curtis believes the most affordable answer to the “Buff” is an updated “Buff”. More efficient, powerful Pratt & Whitney Canada engines, glass cockpit with enhanced vision and NVG (Night Vision Goggle) capability would complement the tried and tested airframe.

Peter Pigott is a regular writer in FrontLine.
© FrontLine Defence 2013