AgustaWestland will be making an unsolicited proposal to modify seven of the RCAFs nine VH-71s bought as spare parts into the same configuration as its CH-149s. Michael Durning Photo
Last summer, the Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) purchased nine Lockheed Martin VH-71 Kestrel helicopters, in various stages of completion, from the United States government. The VH-71 is a variant of the AgustaWestland CH-149 (AW101) Cormorant search and rescue (SAR) helicopter currently in use by the Canadian military.
The U.S. Navy had selected the VH-71 in 2005 as its next-generation presidential helicopter, to replace its aging fleet of Sea Kings. But, after the projected costs for the VH-71 increased from $6.5 billion US to $13 billion, the Obama administration canceled the program in 2009. Canada purchased the fleet for a reported $164 million Cdn.
The Canadian government has stated that it does not intend to put the helicopters into operational service, but will instead use them for spare parts. The availability of spare parts for Canadas SAR helicopters has been an issue since the Cormorant first entered service with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) about a decade ago. AgustaWestland and the IMP Groups aerospace division, the Cormorants in-service support provider, have been making improvements when it comes to the availability of spare parts, but aircraft serviceability issues remain a concern. The acquisition of the VH-71s is expected to significantly improve the availability of spare parts, and therefore aircraft serviceability.
This package is considered an excellent one-time opportunity for the RCAF to address long-standing CH-149 Cormorant fleet availability issues related to the availability of spare parts, said DND spokesperson Kim Tulipan.
The VH-71 airframes, which were delivered last fall, are not in flyable condition. All nine VH-71s were flown by the U.S. Navy, including two that were heavily instrumented for certification purposes prior to the cancelation of the program, but they were far from airworthy when they arrived in Canada on 25 trucks. And, the RCAF plans on keeping it that way, despite calls to increase the size of Canadas fleet of SAR helicopters from the 14 Cormorants that are currently operated at 9 Wing Gander, Nfld.; 14 Wing Greenwood, N.S.; and 19 Wing Comox, B.C. (The Cormorant had also been operated by 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron at 8 Wing Trenton, Ont., but their aircraft were swapped for Bell CH-146 Griffons, and their Cormorants were dispersed between Gander and Greenwood to help contend with aircraft serviceability issues on the East Coast.)
The RCAF said the VH-71 parts will be dispersed between the three bases where the Cormorants are operated. All nine VH-71s are currently stored in Halifax, N.S., at IMP.
Asked whether a decision to not make the VH-71s flyable was a question of the cost of crewing and supporting them, or whether it was simply that the current Cormorant fleet is considered adequate for its assigned role, DND offered this explanation: They neither have valid airworthiness certificates nor are they configured for SAR missions (the VH-71 cabin differs significantly from the CH-149). There is no intent to modify these airframes and to fly them in order to increase the size of the CH-149 fleet.
An Alternative View
AgustaWestland, though, is hoping to change RCAFs mind with a proposal to modify seven of the nine VH-71s into the same configuration as the CH-149s, at a much lower cost than new helicopters, and press them into SAR service.
It wouldnt take too much to convert these airframes into a similar configuration to that of the Cormorant, Jeremy Tracy, the companys region Canada head, told Vertical 911 during a briefing at AgustaWestlands sprawling facility in Yeovil, England. He conceded that modifying the VH-71s to being as Cormorant-compatible as possible may not be what DND wishes to do, but offered a couple of cogent arguments in favor of the idea: 1) the call/perceived need for more SAR helicopters, and 2) Canadian sovereignty in the North.
Canadas current helicopter SAR capability is essentially located on its East and West coasts, which means much of the countrys vast northern regions where survival can be measured in hours rather than weeks or days during the winter months is out of easy reach for the CH-149s. Tracy said one option would be to station the modified helicopters with the aforementioned 424 Sqn at 8 Wing Trenton, which is near the northern shores of Lake Ontario, halfway between Toronto and Ottawa. This squadron, which used to fly CH-149s, now often has its Lockheed CC-130H Hercules fixed-wing transports dispatched for northern SAR missions. Said Tracy, They [RCAF] could put the whole VH-71 fleet into Trenton, because they are a slightly different fleet from the current Cormorant, and it would give you that commonality in one location.
To utilize the aircraft the way Tracy mentioned, though, would involve dropping out the center cabin and replacing it with one similar to that of the CH-149. The estimated cost of the conversion will of course depend on the additional avionics changes potentially needed, as well as fleet commonality issues, but Tracy feels it can be done cost-effectively.
This would give Canada a fleet of helicopters that are suitable for SAR and sovereignty-type operations in the North, said Tracy.
Were aware that there is no appetite within government to put Cormorants up there [at a northern base], said Tracy, but an elegant solution would be to have aircraft stationed at lower latitudes, but dispatched to the North on a regular basis to demonstrate that this is Canadas responsibility. He noted that despite Prime Minister Stephen Harpers very clear resistance to the concept of a northern SAR base, the federal government is determined to have a presence in the region, if for no other reason than to re-affirm Canadas control over the regions mostly untapped natural resources.
What also might help in that respect is the air transportation kit (ATK) that was part of the original purchase of the VH-71s from the U.S. Navy. The ATK would allow a VH-71 to be quickly loaded and then transported by the RCAFs CC-177 Globemaster strategic airlifter.
Along with AgustaWestlands proposal for converting the Kestrels, the Anglo-Italian manufacturer will also be proposing a simultaneous midlife upgrade to the CH-149s. Were currently working proactively with DND on extending the capabilities of the Cormorant, said Tracy, by increasing the alternate gross weight by 2,200 pounds (1,000 kilograms) and offering a twin-engine cruise capability to afford about an additional hour of endurance. The priority, however, will be various system improvements, including new avionics, and sensors that would incorporate technological advances of the past decade and enhance the SAR role well out into the projected 40-year service life of the CH-149s.