Canada’s top military procurement official warns there is no “quick fix” to the software issue identified as the primary cause of last year’s deadly helicopter crash off the coast of Greece, which killed six service members.
Two separate internal reviews by the Canadian Armed Forces found the autopilot on Stalker 22 took control of the CH-148 Cyclone helicopter as the pilot was turning to land on HMCS Fredericton on April 29, 2020, sending it into the Ionian Sea.
Master Cpl. Matthew Cousins, Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough, Capt. Kevin Hagen, Capt. Brenden MacDonald, Capt. Maxime Miron-Morin and Sub-Lt. Matthew Pyke died in the crash.
Among the recommendations to prevent similar incidents with the rest of the Cyclone fleet, the reviews said the autopilot problem should be addressed.
Troy Crosby, the assistant deputy minister of materiel at the Department of National Defence, says officials have since launched discussions with Sikorsky Aircraft, the American company building the Cyclone, to find ways to deal with the issue.
However, he added, “it’s not as simple as making a quick fix” because changing one part of the Cyclone’s existing software could have unintended consequences elsewhere.
“So it has to be very carefully thought through,” he told The Canadian Press in an interview. “And then once that’s determined, then a decision will be made on how to proceed.”
Crosby did not offer a timeline for when that might come, though he did indicate there are no plans at this time to take legal action against Sikorsky, which is now owned by U.S. aerospace giant Lockheed Martin.
The flight-safety review released last month appeared to absolve Sikorsky of any responsibility, saying the type of manoeuvre that Stalker 22’s pilot was attempting to perform was not spelled out in the military’s documentation.
Sikorsky spokesman John Dorrian expressed his condolences in a statement to the families of those killed in the crash.
“When operated as designed, tested, and certified, the CH-148 has proven to be safe and effective,” he added. “If requested, we are ready to work with the Canadian Armed Forces to modify the CH-148.”
The crash of Stalker 22 marked the largest single-day loss of life for Canada’s military since Afghanistan. It also cast a harsh spotlight on the Cyclone’s long and problem-plagued development, which remains a work in progress.
Sikorsky yet to deliver all 28 Cyclones that Canada first ordered in 2004, though Crosby said the last is scheduled to arrive in the country by the end of this year.
Even then, however, the aircraft will not be exactly what Canada ordered, as the fleet needs further updates to its software and electronic warfare system. Neither is related to the issue that caused Stalker 22 to crash.
Defence procurement documents released last week also show the $3.1-billion project is “facing financial challenges, increased procurement costs and some financial adjustments,” and that officials plan to ask the government for more money to finish it.
Crosby described the latest cost overrun as a “couple of percentage points” of the overall budget.
The Cyclones are typically deployed on board Canadian frigates and used for search and rescue, surveillance and anti-submarine warfare.
The crash of Stalker 22 was only one of several incidents involving the fleet, which only started flying real missions in 2018. The most recent saw a Cyclone make an emergency landing in a Halifax park before being towed back to base.
The mother of one of those killed while on board Stalker 22 has questioned why the Cyclones, which only started flying real missions in 2018, were allowed back into the air less than two months after the crash.
But Royal Canadian Air Force commander Lt.-Gen. Al Meinzinger has expressed confidence in the helicopter, two of which are currently deployed overseas with Canadian warships.
Crosby echoed the sentiment, adding: “Clearly the accident was a terrible tragedy and we lost too many good people ? We’ve got the subject-matter experts focused on ensuring that we learn from this and make improvements.”