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From the Atlantic, to the Pacific, to the Arctic, Canada’s coastline — the longest of any country in the world — is huge enough to border three oceans. Seven million Canadians live in coastal areas, and a good number of these are in incredibly remote and unforgiving environments. And from coast to coast to coast, the distinctive red and white helicopters of the Canadian Coast Guard exist to support these communities, and all those who live alongside, or travel across, Canada’s waters.
The Coast Guard operates from nine bases strategically located across the country’s coastline, as well as from icebreakers travelling across the Arctic coastline in the summer months. Unlike many other coast guard aviation units around the world, the primary role of the Canadian Coast Guard’s helicopters isn’t search and rescue (SAR) — that role falls to the Royal Canadian Air Force. The Coast Guard’s helicopters can — and do — assist with SAR taskings if called upon, but they primarily serve to ensure the safety of marine traffic, largely through the construction and maintenance of navigational and communication aids that are only accessible by air.
Additional responsibilities include the support of Coast Guard icebreakers in the form of aerial reconnaissance and helping in the rotation of non-Coast Guard personnel who work on the ships; environmental response during emergencies such as an oil spill; and supporting various ongoing scientific research projects — such as the recent program to locate the Franklin expedition ships that disappeared while trying to navigate the Northwest Passage in the 1840s.
Over the last few years, the Coast Guard fleet has undergone a substantial upgrade, with 15 Bell 429s and seven Bell 412EPIs replacing the previous generation of 16 MBB Bo.105s and six Bell 212s.
“The aircraft we were flying were between 26 and 30 years old,” said Sandra Howell, the Coast Guard’s project manager for helicopters, who was intimately involved with the program to procure a new fleet. “The technology gap between that era and this one is significant.”
A Challenging Process
How does an agency begin a successful large-scale procurement program? Howell said industry engagement was crucial from the outset. “We had several of the OEMs come to the table and we presented a set of preliminary requirements to them . . . based on our operational needs.”
There were over a hundred of these requirements, all of which stemmed from the Coast Guard’s existing operations. “For example, we fly single pilot,” said Howell. “So, we needed to have an aircraft that was certified for single pilot operations. . . . One of our other really big considerations in the requirements was the work that we do on our icebreakers.”
Due the Coast Guard’s work with helicopters on its icebreaking ships in the Arctic during the summer months, the new fleet needed to be able to land on those vessels, and be able to be housed in the ships’ hangars.
Other considerations included fleet commonality (with pilots frequently switching between the light and medium aircraft), and a request for the aircraft to be an off-the-shelf solution rather than a new platform — and already certified for operation in Canada. “We didn’t want to get into years and years of R&D [research and development],” said Howell. “[We said], ‘These are the things we need to do with the helicopters — is this available [in an existing platform]? And if not, can you tell us what is available?’ ”
The final requirements issued in the requests for proposal (RFPs) were sculpted by industry input, with the Coast Guard taking feedback on its preliminary requirements and refining them where possible.
After the RFPs were issued, the bidding OEMs were invited to Ottawa to demonstrate the capabilities of their aircraft, with four main evaluation criteria considered: the helicopters’ performance, useful load, shipboard compatibility, and vertical reference flight. The Coast Guard then submitted its evaluation report to Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) — the government agency tasked with completing the procurement. PWGSC completed a financial evaluation of the various bids — and then awarded the contracts to Bell Helicopter.
However, the procurement wasn’t without its challenges, with Airbus (then known as Eurocopter) protesting that the light helicopter RFP favored Bell; and Airbus, Sikorsky and Leonardo dropping out of the medium aircraft competition before the process was complete.
Howell pointed to the industry engagement throughout the process as a sign of an open competition, adding that a fairness monitor was brought in to oversee the process to review the documentation, “to make sure that we were being as fair, open, and transparent as possible so that we could maintain the competitive process.”
She said the working relationship with Bell, from the awarding of the contracts to the delivery of the final aircraft, had been “phenomenal,” with just four years between PWGSC issuing the first RFP — for the light helicopter fleet — to the delivery of the last of the new fleet of 22 aircraft in March 2017. Both sets of acquisitions were completed ahead of schedule.
“We’ve worked very hard together to make sure that not only do [they] deliver what we’ve asked for in the technical specifications, but that [they] delivered it on time — and on both platforms Bell exceeded their delivery timeline,” said Howell.
She said there isn’t any plan to use the expanded capabilities offered by the new aircraft to broaden the Coast Guard’s mission — but that’s not to say it won’t happen in the future.
“The Coast Guard’s mission and mandate hasn’t changed,” she said. “But we understand that we will have these helicopters for probably the next 25 to 30 years, so we wanted to ensure that we had capabilities built in to these helicopters beyond what we had to be able to expand our mission if necessary.”
A Managed Transition
As mandated by the acquisition strategy, the Coast Guard’s 429s and 412EPIs are fairly standard off-the-shelf models, but they do feature a few customizations to help achieve the Coast Guard’s mission. Both types have a bubble door to help make the organization’s vertical reference work a little easier, as well as floats and bearpaws (DART provided these kits for the Bell 412). The types also share the Garmin GTN 750/650.
The transition to the new fleet was carefully managed, with the Coast Guard developing a transition plan while the procurement process was taking place. The plan covered the training requirements for the pilots and aircraft maintenance engineers (AMEs), the ground support equipment that would be required at each of the bases, and how the new fleet would be rolled out across the regions.
“Our goal was to put one aircraft in service and take the [older aircraft] out that same week — and put that new aircraft to work,” said Howell. “So, we wanted to make sure that all of the bases were fully equipped with everything they needed to make that happen.”
The pilot and AME training for the 429s took place at the Bell Training Academy in Fort Worth, Texas, and was then completed with differences training on the Coast Guard’s aircraft in Ottawa. With the 412, the Coast Guard’s training instructors went to the Bell academy to complete their initial training, and then returned to Canada to develop their own training program to qualify the rest of the organization’s pilots.
Most of the Coast Guard’s 48 pilots have several thousand flight hours behind them, but for many of them, the step into the new fleet was the first time they’d been at the controls of the latest generation of aircraft.
“The learning curve was steep initially,” said Paul Mosher, a pilot for the Coast Guard based in Shearwater, N.S. “The 105 and 212 are older aircraft, and going from that to the new types — especially the 429 with new technology from the last five or six years — was steep. But once you’re trained up, it’s quite a bit easier to manage, and quite a bit easier to fly.”
Colin Lavallee, another pilot based in Shearwater, agreed that the new technology offered potentially huge workload and safety benefits.
“As long as you can wrap your head around all the avionics and the automation, your workload is greatly reduced and your safety margin goes up,” he said. “You can use your attention to look at the terrain avoidance and traffic avoidance, for example. You can mitigate your risk.”
The rollout of the new fleet began on the West Coast, but the east didn’t have to wait too long to get the new aircraft, with the first 429 arriving in Shearwater in February 2015, and the 412 in June 2017.
The base in Shearwater is one of five in the Atlantic region (along with St. John’s, N.L.; Stephenville, N.L>; Charlottetown, P.E.I; and Saint John, N.B.). From those bases, the Coast Guard operates a total of nine helicopters — seven 429s and two 412s. Two of those nine spend each summer aboard an icebreaker in the Arctic.
“On the East Coast, we do a lot of flying for construction programs,” said Paul Veber, superintendent of the regional operations centre for the Atlantic region. “The Coast Guard’s always constructing helicopter landing pads, light stations, [and] fixed shore aids to navigation, so our helicopters sling towers, they sling a load of cement, and they’re versatile in the sense that they can do the construction work from land, but they often do the construction work from shipboard platforms.”
In addition to the aerial construction work, which requires a high level of skill from pilots with the long line, the helicopters transport Coast Guard technicians to the various navigational aids to perform maintenance or checks, and during the winter months, they perform aerial reconnaissance on the ice floes off Canada’s East Coast.
“Because of the amount of ice we have here in the winter months, we’re trying to provide the most accurate, up-to-date and timely ice information for own our ships and commercial ships,” said Veber. “For that, we’re reliant on the helicopters in our fleet.”
Veber said he is receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback on the new fleet from across the Atlantic region — both from his crews and the clients using the machines. The speed of the new aircraft in particular, he said, was greatly enhancing the Coast Guard’s capabilities.
“The 429s are much quicker, they cover a lot more ground in the same period of time than the old 105s did,” he said. “Even the new 412s have an increased speed over the 212s. We cover a large geographic region — for instance, from St. John’s to southern Labrador was always a two-day trip. Now we can do that and return in a day because of the increased speed of the machine. . . . It’s really improved the efficiency, the speed, and the range at which we’re able to conduct our programs on a day-to-day basis.”
The maintenance crews — after having to adapt to a very different style of maintenance with the technology on the latest generation of aircraft — have also been pleased with the aircraft’s performance. “Those machines fly a lot of hours, do an awful lot of slinging, and carry heavy loads — and the reliability has been great,” said Veber.
The Fleet Takes Flight
In Canada, the 429 has a maximum gross weight of 7,500 pounds (3,400 kilograms), offering a payload of roughly 2,300 lb. (1,040 kg), said Mosher. Shortly before Skies’ visit to Shearwater, the Coast Guard had secured an extension on the 429 for a maximum gross takeoff weight (external) of 8,000 lb. (3,630 kg).
“It’s an extra 500 lb. [225 kg], which the aircraft is more than capable of — they have lots of power,” said Mosher.
Despite this, the 412 is still considered the workhorse of the new fleet.
“It’s the heavy-lifter,” said Mosher. “Ninety percent of our work with the 412 is aerial construction, so we’re doing a lot of the lifting that the 429 can’t.”
And it’s the aerial construction work that is particularly appealing to many of the Coast Guard’s pilots. “Vertical reference is probably one of the more enjoyable things that we do, just simply because of the challenge,” said Lavallee. “Most of us have got thousands of hours, so flying from point A to point B is kind of mundane. Getting out and throwing the line on and doing a bit of vertical reference work, whether it’s shore-based or ship-based — it’s a challenge.”
A bonus with the 412 — as compared to the 212 — is the ability to use it as a shipboard platform. According to Veber, the skids on the 212 weren’t rated for use in a sea condition, whereas the 412 — complete with a blade folding kit — is more than ready to operate from the Coast Guard’s icebreakers.
“The old 212s might pitch down on the flight deck just to fuel, but they’d have to go again,” he said. “The 412s can actually be based on board the ship, which gives us a great deal more versatility in that area.”
The Coast Guard’s icebreakers required some modifications to accommodate the new fleet — primarily to the hangars on board. Aside from some teething issues with the 429’s blade folding kit, the new fleet’s transition to shipboard operations has been quite smooth, said Lavallee. The 429’s impact has been particularly evident during crew changes, he added, when its ability to carry six or seven — as compared to the three that would typically be taken on the 105 — has meant that a crew change can be completed in a fraction of the time previously taken.
According to the Coast Guard pilots in Shearwater, the quickly changing weather — and its potential to bring fog — is the greatest challenge they face in their operations. Thankfully, there’s never any pressure for the crews to push the boundaries of safe operations to complete a tasking.
“Our organization leans heavily towards safety,” said Mosher. “If we’re out doing the job and we feel that the job can’t safely get done, we can postpone it, or change it, or delay it. And we don’t get any pushback from that [from superiors]. . . . There’s not that pressure there of, ‘You have to get this done today.’ ”
Lavallee said the new aircraft haven’t changed the Coast Guard’s role, just made it easier and safer to do the job.
“The aircraft lift a little more [than the previous generation], are more automated, [and] are safer to operate,” he said. “It makes it easier for the pilots to do our jobs. Our existing fleet was an older fleet, and was starting to cost a lot of money to maintain. Our timing was pretty good to transition.”
With regards to the 429, Lavallee highlighted the aircraft’s single-engine performance. “It’s phenomenal, in comparison to where we were,” he said. “We follow the Category A envelope, which, for us, is a huge safety margin built in that we didn’t have before.
“We went from an aircraft that, to do our jobs, we were on the borderline of max power all the time doing certain taskings. Now with the 429, with that 7,500 lb. internal [maximum gross weight], we’ve got a 25-per cent power margin. Of all the different types I’ve flown, I’ve never seen, ever, a 25-per cent power margin left. It’s huge.”
A Multi-use Simulator
A third strand of the Coast Guard’s fleet renewal program is the acquisition of a full flight simulator, with CAE awarded the contract for a Level D device to support both the 429 and 412EPI in February 2016.
The simulator — a CAE 3000 Series — features a roll-on/roll-off cockpit design, allowing it to represent both types used by the Coast Guard. When one cockpit is inside the full flight simulator, the other will sit on a docking station that allows it to be used as a Level 5 flight training device.
Pilots using the simulator will be able to train in extremely familiar environments, with many of their operating areas and mission profiles built into the machine.
“We have 36 operational training areas that we’ll be able to go into and train for the types of operations that we actually do,” said Howell. “We’ll be able to land onboard the back of an icebreaker on the west, east, and central Arctic areas in which we currently operate; it’s very specific to our operations. One of the biggest benefits for us is, of course, not only de-risking pilots and our aircraft, but not having to take the aircraft off a program to actually do training.”
The simulator is set to be delivered to the Coast Guard in 2018.
The simulator represents the last piece of the Coast Guard’s fleet renewal program, and once it is in place, it will mark a successful conclusion to a program that was highly ambitious both in time and sheer scale. Government procurement programs aren’t typically associated with speed and ease of integration, but with a fleet of 22 aircraft and a simulator going from concept to operation in just over five years, the Coast Guard’s fleet renewal seems to have bucked the trend — and brought an exciting new generation of aircraft to support those living and working along Canada’s coasts.