Choppers bought for parts may live to fly another day
Former White House aircraft poised to join search-and-rescue fleet
Lost hikers or stranded fishermen could find themselves being rescued by helicopters once designed to transport U.S. presidents.
The Department of National Defence had been insistent that the presidential helicopters, purchased in 2011 for spare parts for Canada’s current search-and-rescue choppers, would never be used as actual aircraft.
But in an about-face, the military and DND now acknowledge they are looking at doing just that.
Defence sources say senior officers inside the Royal Canadian Air Force have successfully argued that since the $3-billion helicopters, known as the VH-71, were airworthy, it didn’t make sense to strip them down for parts.
They are pushing for the aircraft to be added to the RCAF flight line.
When Barack Obama came to the presidency, he balked at the high cost of the VH-71 helicopter program, which had been started under former president George W. Bush. Around $3 billion had already been spent and the program was expected to more than double in price.
As a result, the U.S. government shut down the program.
The VH-71s are similar to the search-and-rescue Cormorant helicopters currently used by the RCAF.
The nine new helicopters, as well as more than 800,000 spare parts, were purchased by DND for about $164 million. Seven of the choppers are airworthy.
Defence sources say the RCAF is considering using the helicopters to bolster the search-and-rescue fleet in the coming years since it will have to remove some Cormorants from service as they go through what is known as a midlife upgrade.
“Analysis has shown that a VH-71 could be converted for SAR (search and rescue) operations, and it is part of the option analysis of the Cormorant mid-life upgrade,” said RCAF spokesman Capt. Alexandre Munoz.
“When complete, this analysis will help determine the most effective mechanism to improve fleet capacity if deemed necessary.”
Parts haven’t been removed from the presidential helicopters and they are still airworthy, sources say. Spare parts taken from the stockpile purchased by Canada from the U.S., however, have been used for the Cormorants.
Jeremy Tracy, a spokesman for Agusta-Westland, which builds the Cormorant, said the firm has always been supportive of converting the presidential helicopters to a search-and-rescue variant.
“The conversion of the aircraft would give DND a significant boost to its search-and-rescue capability and a more robust fleet,” he said.
A fleet of 21 helicopters would allow for better coverage, particularly in the Arctic, Tracy added.
Converting the helicopters would include installing a side door as well as upgrading the cockpits so they’re similar to the Cormorants, he noted.
Tracy said that if the Conservative government decided to proceed, most of the conversion work would be done in Canada at IMP in Nova Scotia.
All sensitive U.S. equipment has already been removed from the helicopters, he said.
Canada embarked on the presidential helicopter deal with the aim of trying to cut down on the excessive time the Cormorants spent on the ground because of a lack of parts.
The plan worked, according to military documents obtained by the Citizen using the Access to Information law. The chopper parts, combined with a decision to order more spare parts from the original helicopter manufacturer, cut down on the number of sidelined Cormorants.
Canada originally bought 15 Cormorants, but one crashed in 2006.