Replacing Coast Guard Helicopters

Sep 15, 2012

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“Renewing the Canadian Coast Guard fleet of helicopters will stimulate economic growth in the aerospace industry, as well as create a variety of jobs and business opportunities,” declared Keith ­Ashfield, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans in August 2012. Accompanied by Rona Ambrose, Minister of Public Works and Government Services, he announced that the government was going to purchase 16 light-lift and 8 medium-lift helicopters plus “at least one flight simulator” for the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG). With the federal government’s turbulent history of buying helicopters (who doesn’t recall the 1993 federal election campaign when Jean Chrétien derided the EH-101 as a “Cadillac” and summarily cancelled the program on taking office, to the tune of a hefty C$158 million in cancellation fees?), this ­latest announcement is significant.

To begin the process, a Letter of Interest inviting aerospace representatives to an Industry Day was posted on MERX, the government’s contracting website. Next will be the draft Request for Proposals (RFP), followed by a formal RFP in early 2013 and, if all goes well, the signing of a contract next summer. The RFP has been split into three parts: light helicopters; medium helicopters plus the simulator; and a requirement to support the future missions of Canada’s new Polar Icebreaker (to come later).

What will these new helicopters be used for? According to the Coast Guard, approximately 65% of its flying hours are devoted to supporting the safety of marine traffic. Icebreaking operations comprise the next largest block, about 15%, and the balance includes everything from finding the lost ships of the doomed Franklin expedition to environmental response to marine spills and – given the priority that the Harper government has assigned Arctic sovereignty – to “showing the flag” missions. These tasks are presently being accomplished by a mix of 23 helicopters: 17 ‘light-lift’ helicopters (14 MBB Bo-105s and 3 Bell 206s); 5 ‘medium-lift’ Bell B212s; and a single ‘heavy-lift’ Sikorsky S-61N.

“The aircraft of the CCG air fleet are in good working order and provide safe and effective delivery of CCG programs,” says Gary Sidock, former DG Fleet Directorate and now Senior Advisor to the Assistant Commissioner. “Having said that, our air fleet is dated technology, as the aircraft range in age from 25 to 37 years old. The entire fleet is only VFR [Visual Flight Rules] capable, with the exception of our current single heavy-lift S-61N aircraft based in Prince Rupert, BC.” Siddock believes the replacement is ­necessary due to the age of the fleet, warning that “operating and maintenance costs for our helicopters are an issue.”

Chief among the contenders for the contract are Augusta Westland, Bell Helicopter and Eurocopter – with Sikorsky and Kaman as long shots. In the light-twin category, the candidates include the Agusta Westland’s AW109, the Bell 429 and Eurocopter’s EC135 and 145. Potential medium-twin candidates are the AW139, the Bell 412 and the Eurocopter EC175. Sikorsky’s S-76D might suit the medium category, but its record in Canada is severely tarnished by the company’s continuing inability to provide a compliant CH-148 Cyclone from the 2004 contract to replace the Sea King. The distant outsider is Kaman’s SH-2G Super Seasprite, its specialty is small ship operations, maritime security and support roles.

What may tip the scales in favour of any bid proposal – besides proven performance especially with foreign coast guards – will be Industrial Regional Benefits and the amount of “Canadian content” each company has. In 1984, a key reason that the Canadian government chose the Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm Bo 105 (over the traditional U.S. choice) for the Coast Guard, is said to be because the German helicopters were to be assembled at MBB Canada’s Fort Erie facility – renamed Eurocopter Canada Ltd in 1992.

No helicopter manufacturer has a larger Canadian footprint than Bell Helicopter. In the Canadian aerospace industry as a whole, only Bombardier is bigger. Established in 1986, Bell Helicopter’s Mirabel facility is home to more than 2,000 employees ­providing engineering design, manufacturing and support for Bell Helicopter’s commercial helicopter business. With its 61,000 m2 (656,600 sq.ft.) of hangar, assembly and office space, the plant has produced more than 4,000 commercial variant helicopters. The Mirabel facility supports Bell customers with airframe design, product development, composites, complete integration, flight testing, certification and product support.

A second Canadian footprint is located at Calgary International Airport. For more than 35 years, its Canadian Supply Center has been responsible for providing Bell Helicopter parts, sales and distribution for the Bell fleet, both commercial and military in Canada.

Bell Helicopter is the leader in offshore oil and gas helicopters, with 37% of the more than 1,700 rotorcraft in that sector.

In this competition, Bell may have an advantage over the other manufacturers due to the fact that the CCG already uses its 206 and 212 models. The Canadian public is also familiar with its machines as Bell’s CH146 Griffon did such stalwart work with the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan. The Griffon is the militarized version of the Bell 412 medium twin. The 412EP has all the advantages of the 212 – like the large cabin, payload, and performance – but is much more. While the 212’s designed useful load is 2,261 kg (4,985 lb), for instance, the 412EP can carry 2,313 kg (5,100 lb). Partially because of its four-bladed main rotor and higher transmission ratings, the 412EP outperforms its predecessor. It has a maximum cruise speed of 226 km/h (122 knots) versus 185 km/h for the 212 and a range of 659 km (356 nautical miles) to the 212’s 424 km.

“Conditioned for all conditions” is how Bell advertises its 412EP medium utility twin workhorse. Powered by Pratt & Whitney Canada’s proven PT6T-3D Twin Pac engine, the 412EP has a range of 659 km and can handle a load to 2,286 kg through its wide opening, fast-loading doors. It has a dual digital automatic flight control system as standard equipment and the flexibility to integrate automatic approach to hover and automatic hover capabilities in the future.

Also designed and completed in Canada is its newest production aircraft, the Bell 429. Now sold and flying in over 40 countries, this aircraft has been designed with ‘Category A’ capability, speed and versatility, spacious cabin, excellent maintainability, and hot and high performance. The Bell 429 meets the latest requirements of Part 27 airworthiness rules, which the company says are more stringent than the requirements, set a decade or more ago, under which competing light twins were certified.

After an extensive technical evaluation, Transport Canada approved operation of the Bell 429 at 3400 kg (7,500 lbs) in January 2012. Bell Helicopter explains that the increased gross weight was driven by customer requirements for an increased load – such as a Helicopter Terrain Awareness Warning System (HTAWS), a radar altimeter, cockpit voice/flight data recorder and forward flashing lights – which dramatically enhances the aircraft’s capabilities. A company spokesperson tells FrontLine that the increased gross weight of the 429 has been approved by 12 countries to date – Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Ecuador, India, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Thailand and Vietnam.

From its Fort Erie plant, Eurocopter Canada is eminently capable of providing the CCG with proven aircraft solutions for its missions. Both the EC135 and EC145T2 are safe and reliable choices with solutions for corrosion protection. The EC135’s Fenestron (shrouded tail rotor) that also equips the EC145 T2, ensures full protection of the anti-torque when flying close to terrain, providing enhanced safety for ground personnel and a low noise external noise signature. All in all, the EC135 and EC145 are proven and evolving helicopters, easily adapted for the CCG missions.

The EC225 and EC725 are currently performing a SAR role for the following: Japanese Coast Guard, French Navy, Taiwanese Air Force, Bristow Norway (for all-weather SAR needs to support oil installations in the North Sea), CHC, Korea’s 119 Emergency Service, and the Chinese Ministry of Commerce.

The Eurocopter 145 is a strong contender in the medium lift twin-engine class. Its origins can be traced to the proven, rugged German BK117s, but the EC145 is definitely unique. When asked what puts the EC145 ahead in its class, Gary G. Krebs, Eurocopter Canada’s chief test pilot, says: “Three assets – space, ergonomics and man-machine interface.” A former air ambulance pilot, Krebs remembers helicopters from 20 years before when pilots had to continually keep looking at various instruments to monitor engine and transmission torque, gearbox and engine oil temperatures – all just as they were executing intricate hover manœuvres.

The EC145 T2 is Eurocopter’s newest 4-ton multi-mission aircraft, with high flight performance, mission capability, flight safety and excellent cost of operations. Its new avionics suite will provide enhanced mission capacity with its single flight navigation display (FND) for all necessary parameters which includes an FND (Meghas Primary Flight Display and Naval Multi Display) plus Synthetic Vision System display, Power Indication (FLI), Caution advisory messages, rotor speed and Fuel level. A second identical FND has 100% mission display dedicated to basic or optional mission systems, DMAP, H-TAWS, FLIR, Electronic Flight Bag, Display of Vehicle monitoring system (VMS) and a back-up FND. It has a 4-axis autopilot, a Fenestron instead of conventional tail rotor and FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control) engines. Its large payload (3900 lbs) would make it an asset to resupply missions and equipped with blade folding and strong skid landing gear makes it perfect for landing on CCG ships.

The advanced cockpit design and avionics are enclosed in a superbly designed, energy-absorbing fuselage. But what strikes one on entering the EC145’s main cabin is the unobstructed interior. The absence of floor-to-ceiling door posts means the machine can fit up to 10 high-density seats or 6 m3 (213 ft3) of cargo volume. “When I look behind me and see the space,” says Krebs, “this is a flying cube van. We can do any kind of passenger /cargo combination. In one aircraft you have SAR, VIP, EMS, troop transport.”

Especially welcome in any Arctic blast would be the helicopter’s two wide passenger sliding doors and two rear hinged clamshell doors that make for quick, easy access and exit of passengers and patients or materials. For rescue in difficult environments and confined spaces, the company believes the EC145T2 will provide “incredible safety thanks to its powerful engines and the APM2010 autopilot”. The cabin size is considered optimal for SAR and emergency medical missions, as witnessed by the French Sécurité Civile and many U.S. hospitals which are equipped with this type.

The machine’s most prominent feature is its hingeless rotor system with its monolithic titanium hub and four-glass and carbon fibre reinforced blades – all ensuring low noise and vibration levels. The low vibration and high flight stability are designed for transporting patients, medics or Coast Guard personnel and because the titanium hub is high set, there is no need for crouching from the main rotor, providing safe access to the cabin. The EC145 is powered by two Turbomeca Arriel 2E 2 engines, each able to provide vital power reserves even in one engine-inoperative (OEI) scenarios.

The EC135 (having accumulated over 2.3 million flight hours with over 1000 aircraft in operation) and the EC145 T2 (this family of helicopters has accumulated more than 3.0 million flight hours with deliveries of over 800 aircraft) are proven platforms ready to assume roles for the Canadian Coast Guard.

Eurocopter Canada also proposes the AS365N3e for Canada’s needs. Already in use by the US Coast Guard (as the HH65), this modernized variant combines numerous improvements in terms of performance, flight qualities and autopilot capabilities.

In the light helicopter category, Agusta Westland could offer their AW109. With retractable landing gear and powered by Canadian-made Pratt & Whitney PW206Cs, the twin-engined A109 is sleek and fast. Aimed primarily at the police and executive market, the retractable undercarriage accounts in part for its speed. A simple, fixed landing gear would be an available option on the AW109.

The AW109 (as the MH-68A Stingray) was at one time used by the U.S. Coast Guard, and Augusta Westland believes it would make an ideal shipboard helicopter because of corrosion-resistance and flight performance, but no agency has operated the AW109 in this role. The AW109 is slightly larger than the CCG’s current shipboard helicopter, the Bo-105.

The AW139 is already familiar to thousands of Ontarians and Albertans. It is one of the brightly coloured helicopters used by the not-for-profit medical transport organizations – ORNGE (formerly Ontario Air Ambulance) in Ontario, and the Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS) in Alberta. Serving these huge provinces, ORNGE and STARS looked for rotary air ambulances that were practical, cost effective and could transform into a state-of-the-art flying hospital in minutes. The AW139 fitted those criteria for both ORNGE and STARS. When asked what models his company would enter in the CCG competition, Geoff Russell, External Relations at Augusta Westland UK said: “Until we have reviewed further the requirements, we are not announcing which products we will offer. We have a number of products to choose from, ranging from the AW109 ‘Power up’ to the AW189, with the ‘GrandNew’ AW169 and AW139, between these.”

More than 500 AW139s have been sold worldwide with considerable success in SAR and maritime security work and is currently in use by the coast guards of Japan, Korea, Britain, Malaysia and Italy. In many more countries the AW139 is used for off shore work, especially by the CHC Helicopter Group, the largest operator of AW139s in the world and a leading player in the provision of helicopter support to the oil and gas industry and search and rescue (SAR). The AW139 experience has given birth to a family affair with two new civil helicopters – the smaller AW169 light-intermediate twin, primarily for security and EMS missions and the heavier AW189, primarily in use by the oil and gas industry.

Agusta Westland has no manufacturing presence in Canada – its North American production line is set up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. However, all Agusta Westland light-lift models are now available with Pratt & Whitney Canadian engines. The AW109 SP uses twin P&W Canada PW207C turboshafts built in Montreal. In 2009, Agusta Westland and Heli-One, the maintenance division of CHC, established a worldwide service centre network plus a Repair & Overhaul Centre at Heli-One’s headquarters in Vancouver, Canada.


As to Sikorsky, its multi-mission helicopter the S-76D could have been a threat to Bell, Augusta Westland and Eurocopter – except that in October, 2012, the federal government had to ­renegotiate the contract for the CH148 Cyclone once more. The $5.7 billion contract to replace the aging Sea Kings was signed by the government of Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2004 (with deliveries due to begin in 2009), however, not a single “mission capable” CH148 has yet been delivered. Given the bad blood between ­Public Works and this helicopter manufacturer, it is unlikely that its S-76D will feature in the CCG competition.

Whichever helicopter (or mix of helicopters) is selected, their role in the CCG is guaranteed to be high profile – more so than the MBB 105s that have been quietly serving for the last 30 years. With its largely untapped natural resources, the Canadian Arctic is growing in strategic and economic importance. With the steadily increasing marine activity, the Canadian Coast Guard’s role in the Arctic will become ever more critical in the coming years, and this is especially true for Search and Rescue (SAR) requirements.

All of the helicopters reviewed are currently being used for SAR by coast guards and navies around the world. For instance, the British use the Sikorsky S92, the Australians the Bell 429, the Italians the AW139, the French, Japanese, Koreans and others use Eurocopters, Norwegians the Bell 412 and the Americans the AW139 among others. As helicopter SAR is a unique service, performed in the most challenging circumstances, it’s safe to say that all of those countries went through as rigorous a selection process as Canada is about to begin. It requires the right aircraft, the best people and the latest technology. But as experienced and capable as those other coast guards might be, none conduct SAR missions in the wide variances of geography and ­climate that the CCG regularly has to.

The lead government department in charge of Canada’s National SAR Program (NSP) is National Defence. Through the Joint Rescue Coordination Centres, the Canadian Forces provide fixed and rotary wing aircraft from CFB Trenton and CFS Yellowknife for SAR duties. But the marine component of the NSP is the responsibility of the CCG and it relies primarily on its helicopters and icebreakers. Whatever that choice of helicopters made, the lives of many in the future will depend on it.

The Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) is a national Special Operating Agency of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) that provides marine safety and environmental protection services to Canadians, and essential at-sea support to other federal government departments and agencies, including the DFO itself. In the Arctic, the Coast Guard performs considerable and critical work. Its red and white icebreakers and ­helicopters are often said to be the most visible symbol of Canada’s sovereignty and presence.

Peter Pigott is a regular contributor for FrontLine Magazines.
© Frontline Security 2012