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Canada’s fleet of CH-148 Cyclone maritime helicopters achieved initial operating capability (IOC) on June 7, 2018, paving the way for the new helicopter’s first operational deployment in early July.
Meanwhile, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) is rapidly phasing out the CH-124 Sea King, with one of the 1960s-era helicopters currently serving out the type’s last operational mission at sea with the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).
As Col Sid Connor said, this is the year of the Cyclone.
“At the beginning of 2018, everything we were doing was about finishing off operational testing to enable us to conduct operations, and to transition both aircrew and maintainers,” said Connor, who assumed the role of Wing Commander at 12 Wing Shearwater, Nova Scotia, in July 2017.
“We’ve flown about 1,200 hours over the last year, split between testing hours and training hours, with some of those on the ship.”
He told Vertical that ship helicopter operating limit (SHOL) testing has been completed. Those evaluations have cleared the Cyclone to operate from an RCN frigate in very rough conditions up to Sea State 6, which is characterized by waves of between 12 and 20 feet (four and six meters) high, and winds of up to 55 knots (100 kilometers per hour).
Though the procurement process has been painstakingly slow since Canada first announced it would purchase 28 Cyclones from Sikorsky in 2004, the pace of progress has picked up significantly in recent years as 12 Wing and Sikorsky work to bring the Cyclone into service.
This year, in particular, has been eventful.
On Jan. 26, 2018, the last Sea King squadron on the East Coast stood down — and within 30 days it was reactivated as a Cyclone unit.
“By the end of 2018, we’ll be completely out of the Sea King business,” confirmed Connor. “We’ve got aircraft moving back and forth from East Coast to West Coast, and we have roughly 10 aircraft [on the West Coast] now, although that number fluctuates.”
While 443 Maritime Helicopter (MH) Squadron in Patricia Bay, British Columbia, is still flying the Sea King operationally, numbers are being “drawn down” as both aircrew and maintainers enter conversion training for the new helicopter.
Currently, a Sea King helicopter air detachment (HELAIRDET) from 443 Squadron is serving on board the frigate HMCS St. John’s in the Mediterranean Sea, as part of the NATO-led Operation Reassurance. The mission marks the final operational deployment for the CH-124 Sea King, which began flying for Canada in 1963.
With the ship expected home in early July, Connor said it will be replaced by HMCS Ville de Quebec, which will carry the first operationally deployed Cyclone HELAIRDET from 423 (MH) Squadron at 12 Wing.
But before that mission could take place, the Cyclone program had to reach IOC.
That milestone was achieved on June 7, based upon a recommendation from 12 Wing to Maj-Gen Christian Drouin, the commander of 1 Canadian Air Division (1CAD) in Winnipeg.
Connor said 12 Wing had to demonstrate that “we have trained enough people and that we have enough materiel, and we are sustainable, to go out on actual operations.
“Most of what we’ve done at 12 Wing up to this point has been all about generating that capability.”
Building crew capability
Inside the “schoolhouse” at 12 Wing — officially known as 406 Maritime Operational Training Squadron — it’s a beehive of activity.
While the building itself is still officially owned by Sikorsky, Canada is expected to assume possession in the coming months.
In June 2017, the facility was officially named The Fumerton and Bing Training Centre in honor of pilot Robert “Moose” Fumerton and navigator Leslie Patrick Bing, a legendary RCAF crew who achieved the Air Force’s first “night kill” of the Second World War.
“Quite often we name buildings after individuals; but in this case, at the training unit, we train crews,” said Col Peter Saunders, director of operational implementation, Maritime Helicopter Project in Ottawa, and former commanding officer of 406 Squadron.
“We build crews here; we build HELAIRDETs. That’s what Moose and Leslie did back in World War II. We wanted that to be an inspiration to the members of the squadron and the crews coming through there.”
As of late May 2018, more than 120 maintenance personnel and 23 aircrew had completed their conversion training to the CH-148 Cyclone platform at the 12 Wing schoolhouse. [Another dozen pilots were scheduled to finish within the month.]
On the maintenance side, the transition takes between two and four months and involves several different courses of varying lengths. In January, 12 Wing had one maintenance unit; but by September, Connor said there will be three.
“We have generated enough maintainers now that we’re maintaining 12 Air Maintenance Squadron (AMS) Cyclones, but we also have a maintenance capability at 423 MH Squadron and we are already training several who will be part of 443 Squadron on the West Coast.”
On the aircrew side, the Cyclone is crewed by two pilots, a tactical coordinator (TACCO), and a sensor operator (SENSO).
Connor explained that pilot conversion training takes four to five months, while TACCO and SENSO courses are about six months long.
“We are taking normal Sea King crews into the schoolhouse and converting them into operational crews, now that initial cadre training is complete.”
But regardless of whether they fly in or maintain the CH-148 Cyclone, simulation figures prominently in the curriculum. Connor estimated that perhaps as much as one third of the program is supported by simulators that can “fly” no matter the weather.
“There has been direction for all the fleets to get into using simulation as much as they can,” said Connor. “I think the reality of it is there are a lot of things you can train much better in simulation versus in an aircraft. For example, a pilot can work an emergency cockpit fire much more realistically, because you can push beyond what would be safe in an aircraft. Similarly, you can create a warfare environment at a much greater intensity than you would on an actual helicopter, so it’s more efficient and better training.”
406 Squadron has two simulators used for pilot training and two mission sims used for TACCO/SENSO instruction. Both types of simulators can be linked so pilots and TACCO/SENSOs can train in the same environment.
In addition, noted Connor, the schoolhouse also features maintenance simulators that feature portions of the aircraft with actual parts.
While virtual reality is not currently employed in the schoolhouse, Connor did mention a CH-148 rescue hoist simulator developed by St. John’s, Newfoundland-headquartered Bluedrop Training & Simulation. That device is expected to be delivered to 12 Wing shortly and will be used for proficiency training.
The fleet by numbers
So far, Canada has taken delivery of 15 of the 28 CH-148 Cyclone helicopters ordered.
“If you were to walk around 12 Wing today, you’d count 10 or 11 tails,” said Saunders. “We’re in the process of continual delivery.”
By the end of June, he expects Shearwater to be home to six Block II helicopters, which are being used by the operational squadrons. The earlier Block I models are being cycled back to Sikorsky for upgrades; in the interim, those still at 12 Wing are being used for training purposes.
“The main difference between blocks was that the maintenance length in Block I components was not as long as what we’re getting on Block II,” explained Saunders. “The time between inspections has increased. No one else in the world flies Cyclones, so as we gain experience with the Block I, the system as a whole learns how the components stand up.”
One of those lessons was revealed during ship-helicopter trials, when crews realized the external sonar equipment clearance was not as great as it should be when the helicopter was landing on deck. Consequently, the Block II model was modified with a new, contained sonar system.
The first Cyclone will be stationed at Patricia Bay this summer and the West Coast squadron will transition rapidly. Flying will commence by early September, with all Sea King operations ending in December.
“They will be standing up a HELAIRDET and deploying operationally in January,” said Connor, who noted that lessons learned from the first operational deployment in July will be folded into the CH-148 program in “real time.”
As for the Sea King fleet, the airframes that have ceased flying are being stored in Shearwater and Patricia Bay pending a disposal plan from Ottawa. At least one is destined to be displayed at the Shearwater Aviation Museum, the birthplace of maritime aviation in Canada. It’s a fitting tribute to an aircraft that provided yeoman’s service to the country for an astonishing 55 years.
But while it honors the past, 12 Wing is very much about the future.
Connor said Cyclone HELAIRDETs will bring tremendous capability to the field, which may prompt an expansion of their mission portfolio.
“It will get us conducting some operations we haven’t conducted very often; now, the Cyclone will be the first choice [among Allied aircraft]. We may find we’re doing a different mixture of operations at sea.”
While the Sea King had sonar and raw radar, the Cyclone offers capabilities that are “an order of magnitude better,” including sonar, sonobuoy processing, and imaging radar. Its modern electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) system is several times better in range in both visual and infrared modes.
But the modern equipment brings its own challenges, too.
“On the aircraft side, the crew had to work hard to get information on the Sea King. On the Cyclone, the aircraft is collecting a vast amount of info, so now it’s about managing and interpreting that information and using it and distributing it,” said Connor.
The simple fact is that transitioning to the new helicopters has presented a steep learning curve for all involved.
Luckily, said Connor, the maritime helicopter community has always been adaptable — and he’s eagerly anticipating the future.
“I think all of us at the Wing are feeling especially lucky that we happen to be the ones here during this exciting year.”