He­li­copter deal may prove Tories have run dry

The Compass - - OPINION - — Peter Pick­ers­gill is an artist and writer in Sal­vage, Bon­av­ista Bay. He can be reached by email at the fol­low­ing: pick­ers­gill@mac.com

It seems the Govern­ment of Canada has at long last de­cided to go ahead with the pur­chase of a fleet of new Siko­rsky he­li­copters for the mil­i­tary. These 28 air­craft are to re­place the still-ex­ist­ing 50-year-old Sea Kings. The elas­tic bands that Sea King flight crews must wind up to drive the ro­tor for lift-off are no longer avail­able from the man­u­fac­turer, so some­thing had to be done.

The need for new copters had been iden­ti­fied as far back as the 1980s by the Brian Mul­roney govern­ment, and a deal was signed in 1986 to buy Au­gusta-West­land EH101’s. The EH in the name prob­a­bly sold the govern­ment of the day on sign­ing the pur­chase agree­ment. It was the an­swer to the oft-re­peated ques­tion, “When are you guys go­ing to get some new he­li­copters, EH?”

But in pol­i­tics and de­fence­spend­ing the only con­stant is change. Thus, in 1993, when a Lib­eral ma­jor­ity crushed the Kim Camp­bell Tories, prime min­is­ter Jean Chre­tien, claim­ing the air­craft were too ex­pen­sive, can­celled the EH-101’s, declar­ing with a flour­ish of his pen, “No more he­li­copters ... signed Chre­tien.”

Now you know why they call them chop­pers.

Well, no more Mul­roney chop­pers any­way. But as the Sea King elas­tic bands grew weaker and weaker, the Lib­er­als re­al­ized they had to find a re­place­ment.

So it was that on Nov. 23, 2004 the Lib­eral govern­ment’s Min­istry of De­fence signed a deal with Siko­rsky for 28 he­li­copters, the first of which was to be de­liv­ered in Jan­uary 2009. The cost was $1.8 bil­lion. The air­craft were speci f ically de­signed for flight over wa­ter, for tak­ing off and land­ing from ships, and most im­por­tant of all, they had to have a 30-minute run dry guar­an­tee. What that means is that if, for what­ever rea­son, the oil in the trans­mis­sion cas­ing leaks away en­tirely, the copter can con­tinue to fly for 30 min­utes be­fore the en­gine shuts down.

New­found­lan­ders and Labrado­ri­ans are all too fa­mil­iar with the im­por­tance of those 30 min­utes. If Cougar He­li­copter’s Flight 491, a Siko­rsky S-92A, the civil­ian ver­sion of the Siko­rsky chop­pers Canada is go­ing to buy, had pos­sessed the 30minute run dry guar­an­tee, it might not have gone down into the North At­lantic with a loss of 17 souls on March 12, 2009. The 30-minute run dry guar­an­tee might have given it time to reach shore and land safely, or at least man­age to ditch as gen­tly as pos­si­ble in the wa­ter with a chance of be­ing res­cued. Nei­ther of those things hap­pened be­cause Cougar Flight 491 didn’t have that ca­pac­ity.

Nor will the new he­li­copters the Harper govern­ment is plan­ning to buy.

Though a 30- minute run dry guar­an­tee was clearly stated in the ini­tial 2004 deal be­tween Siko­rsky and the Govern­ment of Canada, it had dis­ap­peared from the text of the deal an­nounced re­cently.

When ques­tioned about this dis­ap­pear­ance, the De­fence Min­istry spokesper­son stated that in ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween our govern­ment and Siko­rsky, the 30-minute run dry guar­an­tee had been sac­ri­ficed to keep es­ca­lat­ing costs un­der con­trol. Any­way, she added, the chance that this cru­cial safety fea­ture would ever be needed was “very re­mote.”

Tell that to the fam­i­lies of the the 17 vic­tims lost aboard Cougar 491.

It is true that gov­ern­ments need to ne­go­ti­ate hard when spend­ing our money. We’d like to think they would do so wisely as well. At the out­set in 2004, the 28 new he­li­copters were to cost Canada $1.8 bil­lion. By last week that num­ber had bal­looned to $7.6 bil­lion, of which $1.7 bil­lion has al­ready been spent.

My wife Lisa, a savvy ob­server of what’s go­ing on, ad­mits that get­ting her head around the huge sums of money quoted in news sto­ries is of­ten dif­fi­cult. She has de­vel­oped a mea­sur­ing stick to help pro­vide some per­spec­tive.

In 2010, Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper hosted the G8 Sum­mit of world lead­ers in Toronto. The over­all bill for this two- day shindig, in­clud­ing the obl iga­tory riot, turned out to be ap­prox­i­mately $2 bil­lion. Now Lisa mea­sures ev­ery­thing in those units. She refers to them as Stephen Harper Week­ends.

Back in 2004, the cost of the 28 choppe r s w a s a m ere .9 of a Stephen Harper Weekend. That in­cluded the life-sav­ing 30-minute run dry guar­an­tee.

“To­day, the cost of our brand new he­li­copters, at $ 7.6 bil­lion, would amount to 3.8 Stephen Harper Week­ends. That’s with­out the 30-minute run dry guar­an­tee.

Our mil­i­tary will soon be op­er­at­ing these he­li­copters in our name. Sav­ing money by elim­i­nat­ing the cru­cial safety pro­vided by a 30minute run dry guar­an­tee is a dis­grace­ful de­ci­sion by the Govern­ment of Canada. There is no num­ber of Stephen Harper Week­ends that can com­pen­sate for the loss of a sin­gle hu­man life that may re­sult.

Any govern­ment that thinks so has al­ready run dry.

Photo by Terry Roberts/The Com­pass

Mas­ter Sea­man Kelsey Mug­ford of the 249 Effie M. Mor­ris­sey sea cadet corps, which is based in Bri­gus, was pre­sented with the “most ded­i­cated cadet” award dur­ing the unit’s 39th an­nual cer­e­mo­nial re­view at the All Hal­lows El­e­men­tary gym­na­sium in North River on May 25.

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