Does Visibility Matter?
Nov 27, 2017


It probably seemed minor by some standards, but a recent RCAF announcement may impact the credibility of the fledgling Defence Policy, damage what little integrity there is in the system of defence procurement, and jeopardize SAR mission effectiveness. The SAR community is asking questions, who will answer?

Canada’s new Defence Policy, entitled “Strong, Secure, Engaged”, was released with great fanfare in June 2017. This, of course, was of great consequence since the Canadian Armed Forces had not received an updated defence policy since the Canada First Defence Strategy was unveiled by the Harper government in 2008. 

The new policy describes itself as a “rigorous, evidence-based analysis of Canada’s defence needs and the resources required to effectively deliver upon them over a 20-year horizon.” 

That 20-year timeframe is backed up by numerous references in the document. And so, it was surprising when, less than five months after its release, the RCAF selectively announced (to a few media sources) additional roles or the new Fixed Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) aircraft. 

12 Feb – Members from 103 Squadron Gander, NL prepare to perform a hoisting sequence from inside the CH-149 Cormorant helicopter during a joint search and rescue exercise held in Iceland. (Photo: Master Corporal Johanie Maheu)

According to an RCAF email to FrontLine on 9 Nov 2017, the new FWSAR planes will be painted grey and readied for added duties, including combat missions. 

“The RCAF has made the decision to use a grey color scheme for the C-295W fleet to enable surging flexibility for the very wide range of missions the RCAF is required to conduct, from humanitarian and disaster relief missions, to security missions with partners, and all the way to full spectrum operations,” confirmed Capt Trevor Reid, Air Force Public Affairs.

This announcement heralds a significant change in the mission and role of the new Fixed Wing Search and Rescue aircraft. 

Despite the traditional employment of the SAR aircraft in Canada, the RCAF has suddenly added security missions and “full spectrum” operations to the role of a SAR asset. It remains to be seen what “surging flexibility” means, but “security missions with partners” and “full spectrum operations” are clearly defined in military doctrine manuals as combat-related.

Those are not SAR missions, and that last item in particular deserves to be dissected. “Full Spectrum Operations” means the aircraft and crew must be able to operate effectively in a full combat environment. 

This is a startling change for an aircraft that was procured to be manned and operated in a domestic SAR role. Beyond the reduction of SAR service to Canadians, this change will require significantly different capabilities if the new aircraft is to be capable, and survivable, for these new types of missions. 

According to sources, SAR aircraft have never been tasked with “security missions with partners” before. This speaks to an expeditionary role where the aircraft will be pulled from their domestic SAR role to contribute to a military mission, possibly in Peace enforcement (the new evolution of peacekeeping). 

Does this announcement mean that SAR missions may take a back seat to military missions? Is the Air Force also short on military ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) aircraft? If so, why not add more to the contract and paint them grey instead of diverting SAR-specific aircraft. After all, the Defence Policy does highlight the strategic importance of a robust and “critical” ISR capability – and clearly states its commitment to funding the necessary requirements. 

However, the Policy also states that: “The Government has no higher obligation than the safety and security of the Canadian people,” which should mean that SAR platforms cannot be plundered to provide the assets needed for the also-important ISR role. 

Canada’s SAR Mission
On the sidelines, after patiently waiting for the FWSAR aircraft replacement to be awarded, the SAR community now fears that those highly capable new planes will be quietly retasked for military purposes. 

To recap the background, the FWSAR project, which had pinballed around the procurement system for well over a decade, was finally awarded last year, and 16 aircraft are set to begin deliveries in 2019. The aircraft selected by the Government of Canada for the FWSAR role is the Airbus C-295W (it has been redesignated as the CC295 for Canada). Its flexibility as a platform has led to it being acquired by different nations for various roles, including Search and Rescue, Tactical Transport, Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Gunship, Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), and Electronic Warfare. 

All of the roles listed above require very specific equipment and skill sets if the crews are to be safe and effective in the tasked mission – in some cases, the equipment required for each is mutually exclusive. 

According to Air Force Public Affairs, these new C-295s will be “even more reliable and available more often than our current fleet” of 6 Buffalo and 12 legacy CC130 Hercules aircraft.

SAR Tech MCpl Matt Zukowski pushes a pump case off the ramp of a CC130 Hercules aircraft from 14 Wing Greenwood, Nova Scotia. (Photo: Private Melissa Spence AMSO)

So what is at issue with grey paint, and why is it important? 

Just as the SAR aircraft must be visible to be effective, the Tactical aircraft must be difficult to see – survival depends on it (however, it needs a lot more than grey paint). Tactical aircraft require defensive suites including warning systems, chaff and flares, and ceramic armament to protect crew and vital aircraft components. These expensive items can have a long lead time depending on the complexity of the system and the aircraft that is to use them. They can also add significant weight to the aircraft, limiting range and endurance, both of which are important to a SAR aircraft. As well, electronic systems can cause interference on critical sensors and other equipment that impacts mission success.

Based on the information shared to date, the C295 is conceivably going to be modified to do a secondary combat role, and put its ability to do its primary role – Search and Rescue for Canadians – at risk. 

The concept of combining these roles was not mentioned in the Defence Policy. The first hint that anything was different from the last 14-or-so years of FWSAR replacement discussions, was the decision to forgo the very visible SAR colouring. This colour scheme has very solid reasoning behind it, and the SAR community is convinced it is an operational advantage for SAR mission success. 

So why change? A number of questions are raised by this dramatic policy shift. Is there an increased threat level for Canada that would justify preparing for full scale conflict on the North American continent, or to justify cutting SAR service to support “security missions”? Does it mean that the Cormorant and Griffon helicopters in SAR and the Jet Ranger training helicopters are also going to be painted grey, to allow “surging flexibility” for those fleets? If not, then what is the real rationale behind this significant change for FWSAR aircraft – and has the government sanctioned it? 

Of the list of new missions, as provided by the Air Force, only security missions and full spectrum operations justify a low-visibility paint job. However, in response to a FrontLine follow-up request to clarify those specific mission types, Capt Reid stated the RCAF “will not speculate on future missions.” So the question remains, who’s behind the paint-police?

Have we ordered too many SAR aircraft to fulfill Canadian rescue needs? Is the rugged and varied terrain across our 10 provinces and 3 territories not vast enough or varied enough to require 16 planes to cover the SAR requirements, as originally established? Or is the RCAF attempting to shift other mission needs onto the FWSAR contract? This is where defence procurement takes another hit in terms of transparency. 

Will this new mission statement impact the SAR contract award? As one source commented, “other companies would have pitched a very different product if they had known that DND was looking for a multirole platform for ISR and combat missions.”

The Statement of Operating Intent for the Fixed Wing SAR Aircraft project specified how the Canadian Armed Forces intended to use its new FWSAR replacement aircraft. It outlined who will operate the aircraft, where and in what environment the aircraft will be flown. It also specified the intended flying rate and provided the bidders with generic flight profiles for representative missions. 

The roles envisioned for the new FWSAR Aircraft included: SAR in Canada; Disaster Relief in Canada; Surveillance and Control of Canadian Territory and Approaches; Aid to Civil Power; National Sovereignty Interests / Enforcement; and Defence of North America. 

Visibility is a Big Deal 
While the announcement of the change in aircraft livery to grey paint has raised considerable discussion in the RCAF, and specifically in the SAR community, it has been largely ignored elsewhere. 

One insider is convinced “the Air Force did not talk to anyone noteworthy in SAR” before making the decision to paint the new planes grey. “Our SAR crews fly throughout Canada’s diverse terrains and climatic conditions, they almost always fly in dangerous regimes of flight.” These crews put themselves at great risk, and if a rescue plane does go down, they want it to be highly visible. 

He also points out that “high vis colours lets those on the ground know someone is looking for them.” Describing the concept as “SAR 101”, he says it “gives survivors hope and psychological survival advantage.” 

I spoke to a former SAR Commander on November 6th – he couldn’t believe that a change to grey paint would be in the works. “SAR aircraft should have the best visibility,” he stated emphatically.

27 Feb – SAR Techs from 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron discuss their plan of action on the ground as a Cormorant helicopter comes in to land on top of a mountain near Hope, British Columbia during an annual SAR Exercise. (Photo: Bdr Albert Law, 39 Canadian Brigade Group)

The Current SAR Fleet
How has the RCAF been handling its Fixed Wing SAR requirements while waiting for the replacement aircraft? The RCAF uses Buffalos and Hercules for Primary SAR, but they also use all domestic fleets for Secondary SAR. Of these aircraft, any that are not deployed from Canada in a tactical or combat role are painted in high visibility paint. The reason is that within Canada, there are benefits to having an aircraft with high visibility. The first is safety – it is easier for other aircraft to see and avoid an aircraft that has high visibility paint. For that reason, the Twin Otter aircraft in Northern operations, the training aircraft at Portage and Moose Jaw, and the Combat Support Griffon helicopters are painted in high visibility colors. The second reason is survival – if an aircraft has an incident and makes a forced landing, it is much easier to find if it has bright colors. The Combat Support Griffons were painted yellow after an extended search for a missing Griffon in Labrador, where the aircraft was very hard to find as its camouflage paint blended into the terrain. 

The third and most important reason is mission effectiveness in SAR. It does not appear to be well understood that SAR aircraft are painted yellow and red for operational reasons, and that high visibility is an integral part of the primary role. 

SAR aircraft often operate in marginal weather while searching for survivors of air, marine, and ground emergencies. The aircraft operate low-level, at a relatively low airspeed, searching visually as well as electronically for those in peril. Twin engine aircraft like the Buffalo and CC295 are fairly quiet by nature, especially in the low power settings required for visual search and, in the past, survivors have stated that due to high winds and environmental conditions, they were unable to hear the search aircraft until it was too late to start a signal fire or launch a flare. A grey plane can visually fade into swirling snows and driving rain.

SAR aircraft are painted in high visibility colors to allow them to be seen by survivors and other aircraft and, as a survival aid, to be found themselves if they have a mishap. 

A review of historical SAR aircraft such as the Canso, Albatross, Twin Otter, and Caribou, as well as Labrador and Piasecki helicopters, show that all were painted in bright colors. Back in the day, red, white and blue were considered optimum, but with experience and increased technology, it was determined that yellow and red were more visible colours – and so the helicopters, Twin Otters, and Buffalos later adopted that color scheme.

At first, the Buffalo fleet (originally bought by the Canadian Army) was painted in camouflage colors, but when they became a SAR asset in 1970, were painted white and red (patterned after their predecessor, the Albatross) and some were painted in UN white paint for the Sinai mission. However, after a number of observations were raised by Canadian survivors about the low contrast of white aircraft in winter, the decision was made to paint the aircraft in the same highly observable yellow and red colors as the SAR helicopters. 

The Hercules, by contrast, is very noisy, so the high vis-paint was deemed less important. For those who would scoff at the notion of a yellow Herc, it is important to note that the fleet of Griffon helicopters also has two paint schemes – camouflage for the Tactical Helicopter Squadrons and yellow and red for the Combat Support and SAR Squadrons. 

The current fleet of SAR Buffalo aircraft (painted yellow and red) are limited to the roles of SAR, Humanitarian, and Domestic operations.

On the other hand, the fleet of legacy Hercules (painted grey) are multi-role aircraft that have different squadrons performing different roles – including SAR, tactical transport, and air-to-air refuelling. 

10 Feb – SAR Tech, Sgt Kevin O'Donnell from 103 Squadron Gander, NL is hoisted down from a CH-149 Cormorant helicopter for a mountain rescue scenario during a joint search and rescue exercise held in Iceland. (Photo: Master Corporal Johanie Maheu, 14 Wing Imaging Greenwood)

A key point here, is that the RCAF does not allow Hercules aircrew in any of those three roles to maintain a concurrent capability in the other roles – as it was found that the demands of maintaining multiple currencies were contributing factors to accidents that resulted in the loss of aircraft and the lives of crews. 

Translating the Hercules experience to the new CC295, would logically suggest that this added combat mission would also require additional, dedicated crews. Considering that the number of CC295 aircraft acquired by the RCAF was specifically tailored to the SAR requirements, it follows that greater numbers would be required to take on these additional missions. 

Historically, Canadian SAR aircraft have responded to international humanitarian events, such as the 2010 Haitian earthquake. For that mission, the RCAF deployed the yellow and red Griffon helicopters, despite the fact that camouflage Griffons were available. 

The only “expeditionary” deployments of Buffalo aircraft have been in traditional UN peacekeeping operations in Africa and the Sinai, but those operations were Peace Support, not Security Operations. Even so, the loss of Buffalo 461 on 9 August 1974, to three Syrian Surface to Air Missiles ended the practice of sending aircraft only protected with a special paint job into combat zones – at least until today. 

The simplistic statement that the aircraft will be painted grey instead of yellow and red disregards the reality that any such increased role would require, at minimum, more aircraft, more crews, and upgrades to make them survivable in a combat role.

Without clarification or detail on the additional equipment to be procured, it leaves tremendous room for speculation. 

Referring back to the statement in the Strong, Secure, Engaged Defence Policy, it was made clear that all costs for capability had been mapped out for the next 20 years, but there is no mention of costly modifications for survivability in combat operations, additional aircraft, or additional personnel. The contradiction is obvious.

Learning from History?
History provides another context under which to examine the paint question. Let’s look back to the turn of the century, when a previous Liberal government was acquiring the Cormorant helicopter for Rotary Wing SAR. 

At that time, like today, the Air Force announced that the new SAR aircraft would be grey in colour. The explanation back then was more direct (and probably more to the point than today’s convoluted reasoning of a “surging flexibility” of grey paint. 

9 May – A CH-146 Griffon helicopter from 417 Search and Rescue Squadron based in Cold Lake, Alberta conducts operations over northern Alberta while providing assistance to the province during wildfires near Fort McMurray. (Photo: MCpl Brandon O'Connell)

The military had just gone through a decade of low funding and low morale, brought on in part by the Somalia affair and its aftermath. The only bright spot in the late 1990s was the military response to a number of national disasters, including the Saguenay flood, the Winnipeg flood, and the Quebec ice storm. In each case, the media shone the spotlight on the yellow and red SAR aircraft (at times referring to them incorrectly as Coast Guard). Based on a perception that they were not getting “their share” of good press, the Air Force insisted that the new SAR helicopter had to “look military” (hence the grey). 

However, the government eventually decided that, rather than pander to a misguided desire for glory, it was more important to consider the situations of Canadians in distress – desperate for rescue in bad weather – and make sure there was an aircraft they could see and signal to. Will the current government follow their lead? Stay tuned. 

Chris MacLean is the Editor-in-Chief at FrontLine magazines.



It appears that the generals are out of control. It is bad enough that they are putting the lives of Canadians at risk by camoflaging the SAR aircraft, but if they follow through with their plan to put the new aircraft into a combat role without giving them the defensive suites required to keep them safe, then they are also endangering their own crews. I thought the new Defence Policy was supposed to cover all this off, but it seems the generals didnt read it - and the government doesnt even know what is going on. Hey, MND, how about following your own Defence Policy? You now outrank the generals, take charge, and put them back in the box!

I am a retired SAR Pilot with ten years of flying plus HQ 4 years working on aircraft and other operational SAR requirements. Your article seems to have well covered the bases, I would have liked greater emphasis on the costs and training associated with this drastic change of operational requirements which paint alone will not safely allow. The new SAR aircraft while extremely capable has not been designed for, nor in the current acquisition plan would be logistically supported for any out of country war operations which would far exceed the operations of the currently proposed national SAR aircraft replacement. Who's on First?

In answer to your question, it is not in the interest of the SAR community nor the Canadian public to have dedicated SAR assets painted grey which is specifically designed to avoid detection when the whole intent of the SAR mission is to enable detection.