BY KEN POLE
© 2016 FrontLine Defence (Vol 13, No 1)
Sometime in the late 1990s, air force planners in the Department of National Defence began considering the next stage in fixed-wing search and rescue (FWSAR) capabilities. Whatever aircraft was selected would continue a proud heritage dating to just after World War: servicing what has evolved into one of the largest SAR jurisdiction in the world, extending to the High Arctic and well out into the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
2012 – MCpl Sean Daniell, a SAR Tech from 442 Transport and Rescue Sqn, Comox, British Columbia checks the tail of the CC-115 Buffalo aircraft for ice buildup during a SAR training scenario during Operation NUNALIVUT 2012. (Photo: Sgt Matthew McGregor, CF Combat Camera)
It would be 2002 before the new requirement would be officially identified, in 2003 the Defence Minister would announce it as “a priority” for his department. After a few drafts, the first Statement of Requirements (SOR), which DND planners did not make public, followed in 2004 and the government’s budget that March provided for $1.3 billion in initial funding. The stated goal was to have the first new aircraft entering service in 2006, however, the project became mired in controversy – originally due to complaints that the SOR had been written with a particular aircraft in mind, effectively eliminating any opportunity for competitive bids. Since then, a Request for Proposals (RFP) from industry was drafted and revised a half dozen times and the project bogged down in rewrites, bureaucratic delays and worry over political fallout. Every Defence Minister from Art Eggleton (1999-2002) to Jason Kenney (2015) has tried to push this project forward to no avail. The new minister, Harjit Singh Sajjan, will finally see it move forward.
Two decades after the need was first considered by those DND planners (most or all of whom have retired), the SOR was reportedly heavily modified, and the new RFP (deemed satisfactorily fair by industry stakeholders) was issued in March 2015 – finally setting the stage for first delivery of new aircraft.
As of the 11 January 2016 deadline for responding to the new Request for Proposals (RFP), three twin-engine aircraft (two European-built turboprops and one Brazilian jet) are in the final competition to supply the Royal Canadian Air Force with new fixed-wing search and rescue capability. Entry into service of new aircraft will end one of the longest and most controversial procurements in the history of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Although Team Spartan’s C-27J and the Airbus C-295W (the two turboprops from Italy and Spain) had long been considered the only serious contenders for Canada’s Fixed Wing SAR contract, a number of others have considered entering the competition, such as Bombardier and Lockheed Martin. Embraer’s KC-390 (the jet from Brazil) is now the newest and only other contender to seek to fill the role. Over the years, a few companies had also offered alternative solutions, such as Boeing and Viking Air. Now, however, with three contenders submitting bids, and a decision anticipated later this year, the painful procurement saga is about to end and a tantalizing new chapter of operational missions is on the horizon.
The C-295W, built in Spain by Airbus Defence & Space, and the C-27J Spartan, built in Italy by the Aircraft Division of Finmecchanica (formerly Alenia-Aermacchi), are both similar in basic configuration to the six remaining deHavilland C-115 Buffalos, which entered service with the RCAF in the 1960s as tactical transports and were retasked for SAR work in 1975. Those six remaining “Buffs” currently operate on the West Coast at RCAF Base Comox. While still capable aircraft, having been extensively upgraded a decade ago, they now cost millions annually to keep in service, and spare parts are increasingly difficult to find. The third and newest contender, the KC-390 built in São Paulo by Embraer, is a latecomer to the FWSAR competition.
CC-115 Buffalo goes through the bird-bath to remove any residue that may have accumulated on the airframe as a result of the hours flown over salt water. Buffalos, Hercules and Twin Otters have been handling all FWSAR flights over the years.(Photo: Sgt Eileen Redding)
When the extended bidding process finally closed for the $3.1-billion contract to supply around 17 missionized aircraft (which will also replace 11 older Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules aircraft used for SAR work), Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) would say only that three companies had responded to its 2,000-page Request for Proposal (RFP), which also provides for an initial 20 years of in-service support (ISS).
While PSPC declines to identify the bidders as a matter of policy, FrontLine Defence had already confirmed their identities. Lockheed Martin had been rumoured to be considering bidding new J models of its C-130, which would have had fleet commonality with the RCAF’s current core transport, but the company was neither confirming nor denying that it had bid even two days after the deadline had expired.
A week after the bids closed, Lockheed Martin confirmed to FrontLine that although it had been a “potential” bidder, the company had opted to drop out after “an extensive and thorough analysis of the RFP’s requirements.” Spokesperson Cindy Tessier said the company preferred to focus on supporting the RCAF’s fleet of newer J-model Hercules.
Each of the RFP bidders were requested to provide a digitally-signed master and six printed copies, the latter weighing at least a couple of hundred kilograms each. “The master copy . . . takes precedence,” PSPC explained. “Additional paper copies are required to support bid evaluation teams that will be working in parallel across three departments.” PSPC retained two copies, the Department of National Defence received three for distribution to its evaluation teams, and the other copy went to the Department of Innovation, Science & Economic Development, which assesses industrial offsets proposed for Canadian companies in the various bids.
“Verification of the proposals will be conducted by the bid evaluation teams . . . and there is a process in place where bidders may be requested to clarify information or correct any inadvertent errors or omissions,” PSPC said. “Bid evaluation, which includes aircraft (ground and flight) testing, is expected to take about six months and a contract award is anticipated sometime in the late 2016, early 2017 timeframe.”
September 2015 – Search and Rescue Technicians aboard a CC-130 Hercules aircraft from 435 Squadron, watch out the spotter window for their ground target during in SAREX 15, in Comox, British Columbia. (Photo: Cpl Ian Thompson, 4 Wing Cold Lake Alberta)
The original target date to meet a need anticipated by the RCAF in the 1990s and officially identified in 2002 is long past. History shows that after a few drafts, the first official version of the Statement of Operational Requirements (SOR), which was signed off in March 2004, was greeted with accusations that DND had written it with a specific aircraft in mind (the C-27J) rather than the mission. Controversy delayed the issue of an RFP and subsequent revisions (versions 2 and 3) of the SOR, issued in April and August 2005, did not resolve the complaints. The increasingly rancorous political debate went on for years and confounded numerous Defence Ministers.
Despite attempts to “fast-track” the program, it continually found itself at the bottom of the “to do” list due to the political quagmire. In late 2009, in an attempt to get out from under the multi-layered accusations, the department of Public Works & Government Services, as it was known then, asked the National Research Council Flight Research Laboratory in Ottawa to review the SOR.
The NRC’s test pilots and engineers concluded in their March 2010 report that the SOR had effectively limited the RCAF’s options by, among other things, specifying an “off the shelf” aircraft which lacked integrated SAR sensors such as electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR), search radar and night vision imaging. This represented a need for extensive modifications involving significant risk, expense, and delay (otherwise known as “Canadianization”). The NRC team recommended avoiding the use of this terminology “unless it is anticipated that aircraft may be procured in the form they are currently produced with no design changes.
Sept 2015 – WO Norm Penny parachutes out of a Twin Otter aircraft as Sgt Chad Hildebrant and MCpl Ashley Barker look on during SAREX15 in British Columbia. (Photo: Sgt Halina Folfas, 19 Wing Imaging)
The review team also balked at the SOR’s specification of an unrefueled range of 1,699 nautical miles (nearly 3,150 kilometres) with a 3,130 kg payload, which they said was “inconsistent with the stated core objective of […] maintaining or improving the SAR level of service.” The current Buffalos have a range of 2,240km with a maximum load of 2,727 kilograms. It should be noted that the standard SAR payload for the Buffalo is just under 1,000 kg, and the minimum payload, as stated in the RFP, is reportedly 3057 lbs (1,387 kg).
Another comparison to utilize is “Ferry range” which implies a lightly-loaded aircraft with full tanks (the minimum payload cited in the SOR likely would be close). FrontLine gathered the following ferry range data on the contenders: C295W: 5750km; C-27J: 5926km; KC-390: 6019km.
More critical to the issue of transparency, and what may have kick-started the accusations of impropriety, was the SOR’s mandatory requirement of a minimum cabin height of 83 inches. This eliminated the competition as, at the time, only the C-27J conformed to that specification. In its review of the SOR, the NRC team noted that both the Cormorant and Buffalo cabin heights are significantly less than 83 inches, and that none of the SAR techs they interviewed were uncomfortable with the cabin heights of those aircraft. NRC concluded that the stated requirement of 83 inches cabin height was “not supported”.
Lauded as a fair and unbiased assessment by the NRC, this report created the much-needed whiff of transparency that finally unlocked the shackles, allowed the SOR to be revised, and the program finally saw the light of day after more than a decade of controversy.
Captain Matt Adam steers his CC-130 Hercules aircraft from 435 Sqn in a tight orbit around the ground target during SAREX 15.(Photo: Cpl Ian Thompson, Imagery Technician, 4 Wing Cold Lake)
The revised SOR enabled Airbus to keep the C-295 in contention. A tactical transport developed from the proven CN-235, it features a stretched fuselage, Pratt & Whitney Canada PW127G engines (which afford longer range, a higher operational ceiling, and heavier payloads), and the now-ubiquitous winglets (which improved its aerodynamics – performance and fuel efficiency – significant enough to add the W to the designator).
In bidding for the contract, Airbus has set up AirPro SAR Services, a joint venture with Provincial Aerospace Ltd. (PAL), which is headquartered in St. John’s, Newfoundland and has a track record of providing ISS and other services to customers in Caribbean and Middle East markets as well as at home, racking up more than 250,000 hours of flying time. PAL Chief Development Officer Keith Stoodley told FrontLine at a bid-day briefing that all C-295W in-service support will be done in Canada.
Other partners added to the C-295 team include CAE (training provider), Pratt & Whitney Canada(engine provider), and L-3 WESCAM (for their world-renowned electro-optical/infrared turrets). The company has indicated it will release a list of second tier suppliers at a later date.
Pablo Molina, Head of Airbus’ Military Aircraft Division in Canada, told the briefing that the C-295W is the “market leading aircraft” in its category, capable of handling any conditions the Canadian SAR mission can throw at it – and at the lowest cost. Airbus advises that since the RFP was launched in March, there have been sales of an additional 13 aircraft, bringing the total C-295 sales to more than 165. Antonio Rodriguez-Barberan, Senior Vice-President Commercial, Special Projects for Airbus, noting that 15 years had passed since he first visited Canada to discuss the FWSAR project, added that their proposal was “fully compliant” with the “very, very demanding requirement” set out in the RFP.
Airbus is proud to point out that, despite the development of the KC-390s, the Brazilian Air Force purchased three new Airbus C-295 aircraft (configured for SAR with mission system and sensors), to augment the 12 basic-configuration C-295s the country has been operating since 2006. Although they have opted out of the winglet configuration for reasons of fleet commonality, the mission systems and sensors of the new aircraft are similar to what is required for Canada, the company says. The first aircraft for the 2014 contract will be delivered to the Brazilian government later this year.
Airbus points out that all “Canadianization” will be incorporated into the C-295 at the manufacturing stage, not added after delivery. The mission system, sensors, engines, EO/IR turrets and other components are all installed on the assembly line in Seville as part of the manufacturing process and facilitating quality control. This “eliminates the need to modify the aircraft after final assembly,” says a company representative. It also creates more accountability based on control of the process and allows Airbus to reduce risk and cost, while ensuring the aircraft is delivered on schedule, as contracted.
Like its two competitors, the C-295W requires a minimum crew of two, pilot and co-pilot, but SAR missions also can involve sensor operators, spotters, SAR Technicians and a load master as needed. Measuring 24.4 metres in length with a 27.59 m wingspan, its maximum speed is 480 kilometres per hour, with a range of over 5400 km (over 2,900 nm) with the required minimum SAR payload of 3,057 lbs (1,387 kg).
The other top contender, Finmeccanica, brought its C-27J Spartan to Gatineau-Ottawa Executive Airport for a two-hour briefing in December 2015. A multi-mission variant for la Fuerza Aérea del Perú, one of more than a dozen military and paramilitary services around the world which fly the Spartan, it was being flown by company pilots to Lima from Italy via Canada and the Bahamas.
The C-27J was developed from a 1962 design for the Fiat G.222 and is, hence, effectively a contemporary airframe to the Buffalo. Its engine, propeller and flight deck equipment were originally Hercules-based, however, Lockheed has publicly stated that there are no remaining flight deck commonalities between the C-130J and the C-27J. Team Spartan’s FWSAR configuration would be an upgraded version of the one acquired by the U.S. Coast Guard. The cockpit would feature the latest avionics, and extra power from the Rolls Royce AE-2100-S2A turbines would increase its maximum takeoff weight.
Paratroopers prepare to jump from the rear ramp of a Polish C-295.
Team Spartan consists of numerous aerospace defence companies ready to supply their specialized expertise. For example, Finmeccanica Aeronautics would supply green aircraft for outfitting at IMP Aerospace in Nova Scotia. Others include Airdyne (spotter windows, seats and flare launcher); DRS Technologies Canada (courseware and training aids); Esterline CMC (flight management system and electronic flight bag); Flyht Aerospace Solutions (Iridium satellite communications); General Dynamics Mission Systems – Canada (ISS integrator); KF Aerospace (maintenance, supply chain and repair engineering ISS, pilot and maintenance training, management support); L-3 WESCAM (EO/IR turrets); Rockwell Collins (radios); and Selex-ES (search radar).
On the key element of industrial offsets, Team Spartan said in a statement that it has committed to delivering “100 per cent of contract value […] benefits in the form of hundreds of long-term jobs and far-reaching investments in Canadian firms and technology.”
DND’s former Chief of the Air Staff (2005-2007), Steve Lucas, is now Canadian spokesman for Team Spartan. He told a media briefing at the Gatineau airport that “thanks to its exceptional speed, size, endurance and manœuverability,” the C-27J “can reach austere and remote locations […] from Canada’s existing main operating bases.”
Although similar in length and manœuvrability to the Buffalo, the C-27J’s speed, pressurized cargo compartment and circumference are more similar to the Hercules than the Buffalo. Shorter than the Airbus platform at 22.7 m, it has a significantly higher and wider cabin. The C-27-J also features a greater wingspan and 25% more wing area, which facilitates searching at slower speeds. Its maximum speed is 602kph, its range is nearly 1,852km with a full payload of 11,500kg. Based on the minimum SAR load specified in the RFP, Team Spartan puts the C-27J’s range between 2,300 and 2,600 nautical miles (4,260 to 4,815 km), depending on the conditions.
Both aircraft offer, like the venerable Buffalo, exceptional short-field take-off and landing capability.
IMP’s “Canadianization” would involve a range of government-mandated hardware, including the chin-mounted L-3 WESCAM turret, belly-mounted radar and extraordinarily large bubble spotter windows which would take up almost the entire rear doors on each side of the aft fuselage. Coupled with a modular “palletized” interior, all mean increased weight and drag and, when asked whether that was why winglets have been added to the design, Lucas replied that it was “certainly one of the reasons.” Noting that many newer commercial aircraft feature them, he added that in the case of the C-27J, “in a number of flight environments, the winglets will either completely or partially offset those particular drag components.”
As for the third contender, the KC-390, Embraer is touting its speed, range, payload and lifecycle costs as key attributes for the RCAF. Conceived as a clean-sheet design in 2006, it was still in early development when FrontLine Defence visited São Paulo in late 2012, but the company rolled out the first of two prototypes in just two years.
Geraldo Gomes, vice-president of international business development for Embraer Defense and Security, said the company managed to fast-track the program by drawing on nearly a half-century of civil and military design, development and production expertise. “Development of the KC-390 made extensive use of advanced digital modeling technologies, test rigs and advanced manufacturing processes in order to anticipate any issue,” he explained to FrontLine while attending the AIAC conference in November 2015.
The first flight of the KC-390 was in February 2015 and that aircraft, about to be joined by the second prototype, now is approximately halfway through 2,000 hours of flight test evaluation. Certification is expected in the second half of 2017, entry into service in 2018. Embraer’s heaviest model to date, the KC-390 is by far the largest candidate for the Buffalo replacement at 33.43m in length with a 33.94m wingspan. It can carry up to 23.6 tonnes some 1,400km at a top speed of 850kph. Its range, based on the minimum SAR payload of 3,057 pounds, is 6,278 km (3,390 nm); this range includes reserves for 100 nautical miles alternate and 45 minutes hold.
According to Embraer, the certification strategy for the KC-390 is based on a dual approach: civil certification, under Part 25 (transport category), by ANAC, the Brazilian Civil Certification Authority, for the “green aircraft” (basic aircraft), complemented by IFI, the Brazilian Military Certification Authority, military certification, for the full certification of all systems and capabilities of the aircraft.
“In the case we are selected for the FWSAR Program, the Canadian Military Certification Authority is expected to issue the FWSAR configuration type certificate, based on the Brazilian full military certification,” explained corporate spokesperson Valtécio Alencar. “For the moment,” he continued, “there is no identified need for a civil certification with the FAA (USA) or Transport Canada. The KC-390 development planning and schedule allow us to assure full compliance with all certification requirements on the FWSAR request for proposals and we are very confident about our ability to deliver the best solution for the Canadian SAR needs.”
As for specialized technologies, Gomes said the KC-390 features the latest avionics, electro-optic/infrared and radar sensors, full night-vision-goggle capability, and fly-by-wire technology, which enables the crew to focus on the mission. It would, he said, be “the ideal aircraft” for the Canadian SAR mission because it can be flown not only ‘high and fast’ but also ‘low and slow’ (which is a Brazilian Air Force requirement for paratrooper drops and inflight refueling of helicopters). He said it is “SAR-ready from the initial concept” and “fast reconfiguration allows the plane to act as a fast transport for injured victims with litters and life-support equipment.”
He pointed out that the BAF’s SAR environments are similar to Canada’s, including dense forest, mountains and large maritime areas. “The sooner you get to the search area, the higher the chances of success,” reminds Gomes.
Power is from International Aero Engines V2500-E5 turbofans, and this is the first military application of the units used in the larger Airbus A320s. While test evaluation is “progressing well”, none of it has involved austere airstrips. Even so, Gomes said “the ability to operate from unpaved or contaminated runways has been an integral part of the design requirements.”
Other key suppliers to Embraer include two U.S. majors – Rockwell Collins (avionics and cargo-handling and aerial delivery system) and Goodrich Corp. (primary fly-by-wire) – as well as the venerable Czech firm Aero Vodochody (aft fuselage). Although Embraer has talked with potential Canadian partners about spinoffs from the RCAF procurement, Gomes would say only that Embraer would deliver “a competitive, custom-made solution for Canada and this will certainly include local participation.”
As for lifecycle costs, Gomes insisted that the KC-390’s are the lowest in its class. “The latest maintainability processes and tools allow the aircraft to operate with longer time between inspections and reduced maintenance downtime. The KC-390 uses mature solutions like proven engines, commercial off-the-shelf basic avionics, and integrated fault monitoring. It also introduces new technologies to the medium airlift category such as Prognostic Health Monitoring and Advanced Structural Health Monitoring.”
There currently are 28 firm orders from the BAF, which also will acquire the two prototypes, having put up the equivalent of $1.5 billion in initial funding. Argentina, the Czech Republic and Portugal (which also contributed to the $2-billion development cost) have signed letters of intent, as have Chile and Colombia. If all translate into firm orders, the total would be 60 aircraft, excluding the prototypes.
A Canadian selection would give Embraer a foothold in North America, which is a key element of its goal of securing “a good share” of what Gomes called the “addressable replacement market” of some 700 medium-airlift transports worldwide by 2030.
Selection of any one of the three contenders would be a significant step toward a long-overdue reinvigoration of Canada’s overall SAR capabilities in what is acknowledged at home and abroad as one of the most demanding environments in the world.
Ken Pole is a contributing editor
at FrontLine magazines.