Two CH-148 Cyclones soared over Halifax harbour on Friday, marking a critical step in the oft-delayed rollout of the Canadian military’s fleet of new maritime helicopters.
The state-of-the-art helicopters hugged the Nova Scotia coastline in an aerial showcase put on by the Royal Canadian Air Force, days before one of the helicopters is scheduled to head out on its first international deployment – and about 10 years after the first Sikorsky machine was to be delivered to the military.
Jason Miller, a spokesman for 12 Wing Shearwater in Halifax, said the Cyclone will deploy with the frigate HMCS Ville de Quebec on Wednesday, with an air detachment crew from 423 Maritime Helicopter Squadron.
The vessel is slated to relieve HMCS St. John’s in Operation Reassurance, an ongoing multinational NATO mission in the Mediterranean.
The deployment of the twin-engine Cyclone marks a significant milestone for the ship-borne maritime helicopters, which are replacing the geriatric CH-124 Sea Kings. In January, the East Coast fleet of Sea Kings was retired after 54 years of service.
The air force was showcasing the CH-148 before its deployment, saying the aircraft is a faster, state-of-the-art replacement.
The Cyclone fleet will be tasked with surface and sub-surface surveillance, and search and rescue missions, while providing “tactical transport for national and international security efforts,” according to the military. Its aluminum and composite airframe is built with lightning-strike and high-intensity radio frequency pulse protection.
The Cyclone can fly in temperatures ranging from -51 C to 49 C.
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“It is an amazing machine,” Dan Ross, a former assistant deputy minister of defence materiel, said from Ottawa. “You push one button and all the complex rotor head and tail all fold in like a transformer. All the latest technology has been built up into it.”
Ross, who for seven years oversaw billions of dollars in military contracts before leaving in 2013, said the process of getting the aircraft online may have taken a long time, but was realistic when it came to rigorous testing and development standards.
He said having the helicopter head out on its first overseas mission was a significant development for the sophisticated machine.
“I think it’s a tremendous moment that demonstrates the success of the program,” he said. “It’s been a long struggle, but I think Sikorsky has produced an amazing machine. It proves that such an enormously complex platform is really, really hard to do.”
In 2003, the Liberal government chose the military version of the Sikorsky S-92, but there were warnings the Cyclone was an untested design that could take many years to adapt to the military’s needs.
The federal government signed a $5-billion contract with U.S.-based Sikorsky to buy 28 Cyclones, the first of which was supposed to arrive at Shearwater in 2008.
Since then, there have been disputes over the readiness of software needed to run the aircraft, and Sikorsky has blamed repeated delays on changes the military has demanded to the design, including a requirement for stronger engines.
In October 2010, the federal auditor general criticized the Cyclone project, saying cost overruns had hit $700 million.
The first interim CH-148 Cyclone arrived at Shearwater in May 2011, but that model was for ground-based training only.
The rollout of the fleet was beset by delays, and a snafu late last year with its sonar system didn’t help. Last December, the military said the sonars risked being bumped by a landing system that tethers the helicopter to the frigates.
Earlier this year, the military confirmed that it had eight Cyclones, with all deemed capable last month. The remainder of the helicopters are expected to be fully operational by 2021.
The Sea Kings operating on the West Coast at Patricia Bay near Victoria will remain in operation until the end of this year as crews from that base are trained to fly the Cyclone.