Griffons – Upgrade and Replace
Dec 10, 2015

Back in 1992, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) bought the Bell CH-146 Griffon helicopter, a version of the Bell 412EP, as a replacement for three earlier Bell platforms – CH-136 Kiowa light observation, CH-118 Iroquois search and rescue (SAR) and CH-135 Twin Huey tactical and utility – as well as, for some operations, early models of the Boeing CH-147 Chinook tandem-rotor heavy lifter.

However, even before the sole-source procurement contract to Bell Helicopter Textron Canada (BHTC) was ­confirmed, there was criticism that it was politically motivated. Moreover, the one-size-fits-all approach meant that the Griffon, fundamentally designed as a light utility helicopter, was compromised from the get-go. Among other things, it was disparaged as “a civilian […] aircraft with a coat of green paint.”

But the government forged ahead, ordering 100. They were delivered between 1995 and 1997 in two configurations: the Combat Support Squadron (CSS) version for SAR work, and the Utility Tactical Transport Helicopter (UTTH). While it can be fitted with 13 seats for a crew of three with 10 passengers, weight ­constraints generally resulted in a combat load of eight troopers or even fewer, depending on the fuel and armaments.

The concern arises when you compare the anticipated delivery timelines specified in the Defence Acquisition Guide. Could the expense be better managed?

The CAF still has 85 Griffons in service and their crews have acquitted themselves well in the couple of decades they have been in service at home (SAR, surveillance and reconnaissance, casualty evacuation, drug interdiction and security) and abroad. They have been central to international humanitarian relief operations in many countries because they easily transportable, rotor blades removed, by the RCAF’s Lockheed Martin CC-130J Hercules or Boeing CC-177 Globemaster IIIs.

The highest-profile overseas deployment, other than on relief missions, was Canada’s participation in the 2001-2014 NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. The first six arrived aboard a Globemaster at Kandahar Air Field  just before Christmas 2008.

SAREX 14 participants work as a team to carry a mock casualty from a CH-146 Griffon helicopter at Wing Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador. (Photo: Cpl Manuela Berger, 4 Wing Imaging)

Griffon crews from tactical helicopter squadron were tested in a broad spectrum of roles during Operation Athena, including flying in pairs as gunship escorts to Chinook troop transports, providing top cover for ground convoys, and inspecting roadways for improvised explosive devices.

They mostly were flown at altitudes below the surrounding mountains – they simply could not be flown “hot and high” if they were to carry useful loads. Even though the Griffon has a service ceiling of about 6,000 metres, that’s achievable only under ideal conditions. At higher altitudes, the pitch angle of the rotor blades has to be increased, resulting in increased drag which more than offsets any increase in lifting capacity. Its hover ceiling is only 3,109m, again under ideal conditions.

General Rick Hillier, the Chief of the Defence Staff from February 2005 to July 2008, was among those who criticized their deployment to Afghanistan because of the power-deficiency issue. However, Peter MacKay, who held the defence portfolio from 2007 to 2013, defended the Griffon as “a superior helicopter . . . that serves our interests both in Afghanistan and for purposes here in Canada.”

While arguably suited to domestic operations, its shortcomings in Afghanistan were cited at a United Kingdom coroner’s inquest into the death of a British army officer, along with two Canadian troopers, Corporals Pat Audet and Martin Joannette, in a Griffon crash in July 2009. It happened at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Mescall, 1,550 metres above sea level in southern Zabul province. A dense dustball whipped up by the rotor blades on takeoff meant that the command pilot had to rely on instruments. The helicopter drifted sideways, struck the FOB perimeter wall and caught fire after falling about two metres to the ground. Both pilots and a fifth Canadian survived.

A senior officer from the UK Defence Helicopter Flying School at Royal Air Force Base Shawbury testified at the inquest that operating a loaded Griffon at that altitude and in high ambient temperatures meant that it was inappropriate for the mission. The coroner eventually concluded that the command pilot had “suffered a loss of situational awareness during the takeoff due to the rapid and numerous changes in his focus during the 10 seconds prior to impact as he attempted to stabilize the aircraft and climb away.”

In a heavily-redacted report, a CAF Board of Inquiry concluded that the condition of the landing zone and the pilot’s technique were “direct” factors in the crash and that incorrect application of aircraft performance charts and exceeded engine temperature were “indirect” factors. Even though the report also faulted pre-deployment training, the Board concluded that the mission had been “appropriately tasked and authorized”.

During and after the Afghanistan deployment, various Canadian military websites have been flooded with often negative observations about the Griffons’ suitability for the ISAF mission and, by extension, any theatre of operations where with hot and/or high conditions are unavoidable.

In January 2011, a $640-million repair and overhaul contract went to BHTC of Mirabel, Quebec, where they were built, with some work going to Bell’s Calgary facility as well as other companies in the supply chain.

Aug 2014 – Griffon pilot talks with members of 1 Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, as members of the Royal Canadian Navy disembark on Baffin Island, Nunavut, during Operation NANOOK. (Photo: MCpl Johanie Maheu, 14 AMS Wing Imaging)

Officially known as the CH-146 Optimized Weapon System Support (OWSS) contract, it combined three previous contracts for Bell to provide engineering support, repair and overhaul, and supply support. The 10-year contract was intended to keep the helicopters flying through to potential retirement in 2021 and possibly push that out to 2025. It included some management services, engineering and technical publications, aircraft maintenance services and spare and consumable parts.

Some 16 months after the Bell award, L-3 WESCAM of Burlington, Ontario, secured a 3-year contract for up to $10 million, with two optional 1-year extensions, for routine maintenance, repair and overhaul of the fleet’s electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) imaging sensors which enable the Griffon to operate as an escort or support Army operations day or night surveillance, a key factor during Operation Athena in Afghanistan.

At the time, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper described the contract as not only “great news” for BHTC but also would help to “strengthen the aerospace industry” in Quebec and Alberta.

But back to the question of directing scarce resources towards propping up old platforms for a two-year gap rather than speeding up procurement of newer alternatives that are better suited to extreme flying conditions. The current plan will see more funding for 20-year-old helicopters that can’t keep up with the RCAF’s 16 new F-model Chinooks (which cruise at 130 knots to the Griffons’ 118, and an even wider top-speed differential of 170 knots to 139!). Why slow down a transport, when it’s essential to get troops on the ground quickly, so that the escorts can keep up?

A simple answer is that Canada’s Air Force has a long history of being forced to fly assets longer than originally intended but one has to wonder if the new Liberal government will be looking at more efficient ways of getting the job done.

The Griffons are undeniably due to be retired; they will be obsolete and unable to operate out of the country by 2021. By then, NATO interoperability issues and compliance with aviation authorities’ requirements for higher fidelity navigation in the avionics will surely be a problem.

At a cost of $500 million to $1.5 billion,  DND is planning that the Griffon Limited Life Extension In-Service Support (GLLE), will, among other things “replace obsolete cockpit instrumentation and radios with components that are supportable to 2030 and possibly beyond.” The final delivery, according to the 2015 Defence Acquisition Guide, is expected to be 2024 (three years after obsolescence and facing ever-increasing operations and maintenance costs due to the age of the platform).

Special Operations personnel prepare to fast-rope onto a CFB Petawawa practice tower. 427 squadron provides ­tactical airlift of troops and equipment, casualty evacuation and logistical support, and supports SAR operations in central Canada as required. (Photo: Ken Pole)

On the other hand, the Tactical Reconnaissance Utility Helicopter (TRUH) program, which is intended to replace the aging Griffons with more capacity and capabilities, at a cost of more than $1.5 billion, has the Definition Approval date set for 2021, and  specifies the first delivery in 2026.

Fleet commonality is important to reduce costs, however, there will be a 5-10 year transition period where both aircraft are in service. But there are ways to benefit. One option would be to start the truh program earlier, even immediately, while undertaking GLLE for part of the Griffon fleet. In this way, DND can maintain operational capability with the Griffon while moving to a more capable platform. The money saved with a partial GLLE could be applied towards the new platform.

That new helicopters would cost more than $1 billion, is undeniable. But, as a former federal finance minister put it, “short-term pain for long-term gain” is an economically sound model.  

Ken Pole is a contributing editor at FrontLine.
© FrontLine Defence 2015