Bell Helicopter Textron Canada (BHTC) of Mirabel, Que., has been awarded a federal government contract worth up to C$172 million to supply the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) with 15 light twin Bell 429 helicopters. The manufacturer is also on track to provide the same agency with eight more twin-engine helicopters, medium-lift 412EPI models.
The contract for the light twins was announced May 12 by Fisheries and Oceans Minister Gail Shea and the lead political minister for Quebec, Denis Lebel, Minister of Infrastructure, Communities and Intergovernmental Affairs, despite the fact that the procurement is at the center of a Federal Court lawsuit brought by Airbus Helicopters Canada (formerly Eurocopter Canada).
Plans for up to 24 new helicopters were announced by the government in August 2012, when Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) issued a letter of interest to potential suppliers. The current CCG fleet is comprised of 14 Airbus Helicopters Bo.105 CBS helicopters delivered between 1983 and 1987, three late-1960s Bell 206Ls, and five late-1970s Bell 212s.
Some 65 percent of CCG helicopter operations supports construction and maintenance of navigation aids and telecommunications equipment; 15 percent is for ice reconnaissance as part of the CCG’s icebreaking mission; and the rest involves personnel and cargo transfers, as well as support for scientific research and fisheries enforcement.
At the beginning of the procurement process, other potential contenders for the light twin helicopter contract were the AgustaWestland AW109 and Airbus Helicopters’ EC135 or EC145. Potential medium-lift candidates, in addition to the 412EPI, were the AW139, the EC175 and the Sikorsky S-76D.
The light twin procurement prompted complaints by competitors, notably Airbus Helicopters Canada and AgustaWestland, about the fundamental legitimacy of the competition. The main issue is that Transport Canada allegedly favored the 429 when it granted Bell a 500 pound weight exemption for its light twin helicopter. (The approval, granted in December 2011, increased the maximum gross weight of the 429 from 7,000 lbs. to 7,500 lbs. — putting it 500 lbs. in excess of the weight limit for normal, as opposed to transport, category rotorcraft.) Airbus Helicopters Canada sued the government and with the Federal Court not expected to rule until at least late 2014, the project was expected to remain in limbo.
But in their surprise joint announcement, the ministers made no reference to the court case. Shea said the fleet renewal “will improve the Coast Guard’s air support capability from coast to coast and in Canada’s North,” while Lebel focused on job sustainment in his home province.
For its part, Airbus Helicopters said in a statement from its headquarters in Fort Erie, Ont., that it “deeply regrets that the federal government moved forward and awarded the . . . contract” even though its lawsuit is unresolved.
“Airbus Helicopters Canada maintains that the government’s Request for Proposals . . . was biased to favor one manufacturer and consequently resulted in a sole source tender,” read the statement. “Furthermore, Transport Canada’s awarding of a special weight exemption to Bell Helicopter in 2011 created an unfair competitive advantage and contributed to this RFP attracting only one bid.”
Citing its “strong presence in para-public and defense markets around the world” and its status as “the civil market leader” in Canada, Airbus Helicopters pointed out that it has invested “heavily” in Canada for three decades and said that it expected “to compete in fair, open and transparent public tender processes.”
Airbus Helicopters’ lawyer in the court case, Marc-André Fabien, a senior partner in Fasken Martineau, told Vertical that the government’s approach to the light twins procurement “clearly” had been focused on Bell from the outset. He also suggested that the same is true of the medium-twins procurement.
Fabien, whose specialties include litigation against all levels of government, said the contract should not have been awarded at least until a Federal Court of Canada judge rules on the merits of the lawsuit later this year.
As for the medium-lift procurement, AgustaWestland, Airbus Helicopters Canada and Sikorsky all confirmed their withdrawal from the procurement. The two European-controlled companies had advised PWGSC of their decision some months ago, but neither they nor the government confirmed it at the time. PWGSC has since declined comment.
The main issue is weight again, with the CCG’s stipulation of a maximum medium-lift helicopter weight of 11,000 lbs. (4,989 kg). This was determined as the maximum the agency’s current ships could safely accommodate, even though future vessels from which they will operate are still in early design.
The Bell 412EPI has a maximum takeoff weight of 11,900 lbs. (5,398 kg), which implies that it will not be operated at full capacity. The S-76D comes in at 11,700 lbs. (5,307 kg), the AW139 at 14,110 lbs. (6,400 kg); and the EC175 at 16,535 lbs. (7,500 kg).
When Sikorsky announced its decision to withdraw from the medium-lift competition, it disclosed that it had evaluated not only its S-76D but also the H-60 it supplies to the United States Coast Guard. It eventually decided that the S-76D “appeared to be the best fit” but without going into detail, said that “after careful consideration,” it opted not to bid.
The first Bell 429 is scheduled to be delivered in 12 months.