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Thursday, June 4, 2015

RCAF Looks to Former US. Presidential Helicopters for SAR

Rescue'es could soon be rescued by Helicopters that once carried the President of the United States, as the RCAF looks at ways of bolstering the number of Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopters it has available on a regular basis.

Former U.S President George W. Bush began a replacement program for the Marine One helicopters, which fly either the VH-3D Sea King or the VH-60N Whitehawk. The VH-71 Kestrel was selected as the appropriate replacement.

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The Lockheed Martin VH-71, in testing in Owego, New York. File Photo. 

By February 2009, the program cost had risen to over $13 billion for 28 helicopters, and President Barack Obama looked at cancelling the program. The US Navy came to the same conclusion, and in June 2009, cancelled the program, after investing more than $4.4 billion and accepting delivery of 9 VH-71's.

Shortly after the US Navy cancelled the program, it sold the 9 helicopters and more than 800,000 spare parts to the RCAF for $164 million. The RCAF initially intended to strip the 9 VH-71's for spare parts for its AugustaWestland CH-149 Cormorant SAR helicopters. The VH-71 was a variant of AugustaWestland's AW101, as is the CH-149 - so they use similar parts.

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RCAF CH-149 Cormorant over Nova Scotia. Photo: DND
Officials at DND and the RCAF are now saying that the $4 billion dollar aircraft purchase was a steal for the RCAF and 7 of the 9 are airworthy and it does not make sense to strip them down for spare parts. With several of the CH-149's heading into a retrofit for their (mid-life) renewals, the RCAF wants to bolster the number of SAR helicopters it has available, and the 7 VH-71's can help. The remaining 2 VH-71's are/were test airframes and therefore are no longer airworthy and cannot be converted.

If the RCAF moves forward with this plan, the VH-71's will need some retrofitting. Including having side sliding doors installed, and an upgrade to the cockpit, so it is closer to the CH-149. An AugustaWestland spokesman said, the company has always supported converting the VH-71's into SAR helicopters, and would be happy to help the RCAF in its retrofit.

Canada currently has 14 SAR Cormorant helicopters, and the 7 VH-71's would increase that total to 21, which would help for increased coverage in the Arctic.

The RCAF is still studying the option, and breaking down the cost effectiveness of the plan.