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Colin Kenny Sounds off on Helo Purchases


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Helicopter purchases teach lessons
Colin Kenny
The Windsor Star

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Canadian government's handling of helicopter purchases over the past two decades gives new meaning to a bevy of adjectives, like foot-dragging, flawed, clumsy and misguided. But there are even uglier words that need to be used here.

Let's start with guinea pigs. If it weren't for the Guinea Pig Factor, Canadians might be able to forgive at least some of the other blunders connected to Canada's history of purchasing helicopters. But violating the Guinea Pig Factor is unforgivable.

This is it: mid-sized countries with large and looming equipment needs and tight budgets cannot afford to volunteer as guinea pigs so a company can figure out whether an important piece of equipment (a) will actually work; and (b) can be delivered on time at the agreed price.

Countries should also try to avoid the Early Bird Factor: don't buy sophisticated equipment early in production - wait until some other daring fools have purchased and used it enough to ensure that it doesn't break down.

Bringing us to the Twisted Sister Factor. Avoid purchasing any piece of military equipment that promises to be a more complex sister variation of civilian equipment already in use. Military use is almost always more demanding than civilian use. Even a myriad of technical additions and adjustments won't usually create a military version that measure up.

In short, buy off the shelf, buy late in the production run, and avoid civilian mutants.

Oh, there is also the Maple Madness Factor. Too often, our Department of National Defence has insisted that manufacturers "Canadianize" whatever we are buying, which has often led to cost overruns and delays in delivery for little in the way of benefits. For instance, Canada was supposed to take delivery of 16 Chinook helicopters in 2008, because the government had learned how badly they were needed to move troops in Afghanistan. We insisted on a "Canadianized" version, so we will now be lucky to receive a reduced order of 15 (one fewer, to save on cost overruns) by 2013.

But when it comes to clumsy procurement, nothing can match the Sea Kings, our aged, decaying fleet of helicopters used for naval surveillance, anti-submarine warfare and maritime search-and-rescue. Acquired nearly 50 years ago, they are unreliable and costly antiques, closing in on the Kitty Hawk in the chronology of aviation history.

In 2004, after more than two decades of false starts and indecision, the federal government ordered up 28 Sikorsky Cyclones, a conceptualized version of Sikorsky's civilian S-92 series that was not without its own problems. In 2009 a Sikorsky S-92A heading for an oil rig off Newfoundland crashed killing 17 aboard. The problem was a gearbox that was supposed to be able to run dry for 30 minutes, but couldn't.

Deliveries of the Cyclones were to begin in 2009. It's 2012 now, and there are none in sight. Late delivery fines have been imposed, but remain unpaid. It could be several more years before Sikorsky can deliver the helicopters that, by contract, should already be sitting on Canada's ships and runways.

More than a million dollars has been spent to reconfigure the landing pads of two Canadian frigates to accommodate the Cyclones. They will now have to be re-reconfigured for continued use of the Sea Kings, then re-re-reconfigured if and when the Cyclones eventually arrive.

What went wrong? We went in as Guinea Pigs. No other country had ordered this undeveloped, untested aircraft. Canada was therefore the earliest of Early Birds. And we ordered up a Twisted Sister - a conceptualized military version of a civilian aircraft. It soon became apparent that the civilian version didn't have the lift capacity required. Boosting the size of the engines led to a variety of other adjustments that have yet to produce a highperformance helicopter.

In 1987, Brian Mulroney's government announced that it would purchase top-of-theline 3-turbine AgustaWestland EH-101 all-purpose helicopters to replace the Sea Kings. The price tag was to be a hefty $4.8 billion. Britain and Italy had been involved in the development of the EH-101, but even after the Mulroney government dragged its feet for six years in acquiring the EH-101, they hadn't been rigorously tested in either country.

Jean Chrétien, elected prime minister in 1993, had previously denounced the EH-101s as prohibitively expensive. He ordered the contract cancelled, costing Canadian taxpayers a penalty of more than half a billion dollars.

Chrétien never did get around to replacing the Sea Kings. But he could not ignore the need to replace Canada's fleet of CH-113 Labrador search-and-rescue helicopters, which were falling out of the sky at an alarming rate.

Irony of all ironies - Sikorsky won the competition to replace them, which meant Chrétien was forced to purchase 15 Cormorants - a version of the EH101 that the prime minister had paid half a billion dollars to go away.

The Cormorants have turned out to be a pilot's dream, but a mechanic's nightmare. The tail rotor in the adapted military version had a design flaw that our technicians are forced to wrestle with on a regular basis. There are reports that their ratio of time spent in maintenance, compared to time spent in the air, is approaching that of Sea Kings. But this shouldn't have come as a surprise - our Cormorants are both Early Birds and Twisted Sisters.

Replacing the Sea Kings themselves was left to Paul Martin, whose government performed the chore with a new-found alacrity, choosing the Sikorsky Cyclones.

Finally, a timely decision. But obviously not a great one.

If only pigs could fly.

Colin Kenny is former chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence.

© Windsor Star 2012

Now, I don't know about the helos besides the Chinook, but Senator Kenny needs to get his facts straight.  The 15 Chinooks will be on time.  The first helo off the production line is in test flight phase, second is very close to first flight, and the third is entering production.  The use of "lucky" is crap.  Stop insulting us Kenny when you don't know what you're talking about.  Tell the truth, rather than your convenient words to get political points.  Also, Canada was NEVER to take delivery of the 16 Chinooks in 2008.  Do you know what you are talking about Kenny?  In addition, the unique Cdn elements to our Chinook will allow us to fly longer.  Kenny, do you remember that we have the second largest land mass in the world?  Do you remember that we're not the size of the US Army and don't have Chinooks to base in multiple parts of our country?  Thus, we need the extended range.  Also, there aren't cost overruns.  The problem there was that the media jumped on bs info and didn't differentiate between the actual cost to buy the helos and the cost to have Boeing support the helos.  Once again Kenny, speak the truth.  I'm tired of so called experts blabbing in the media so that they can gain political pts.  Did you know Kenny that there are military members who work in these projects (and many dedicated civilians) and that they take pride in the work they do?  I can't speak for the other helos, but the Chinook will be delivered on time.  I noticed that the first flight of the first Chinook on 24 Jun 12 received little to no media attention.  Interesting that the media jump on any problems, but don't give credit when credit is due.

My apologies for the rant, sometimes I just need to get crap off my chest and I've held it in too long.


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And to point out another error he made: EH Industries won the competition for the SAR helicopters, not Sikorsky....