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When you walk into the Royal Canadian Air Force’s (RCAF’s) new search and rescue (SAR) centre of excellence at 19 Wing Comox, B.C., in the fall of 2020, the history of 418 Squadron will be front and centre. At first glance, however, much of it might seem out of place for a SAR training unit.
Many of the artifacts and battle honours lining the entrance walls will recall the unit’s remarkable record achieved during the Second World War and in the decade after as an intruder and light bomber squadron.
Nevertheless, that reminder of history and lineage will be important for staff and students of 418 Search and Rescue Operational Training Squadron, which was reactivated during a small ceremony on July 11, 2019, in Comox.
“It is an extraordinary squadron,” said LCol Derek Jeffers, the new commanding officer of a squadron that was first stood up in November 1941 and earned honours defending Britain and in the campaigns over Dieppe and Normandy, among others. “My vision is to put that history at the forefront.”
Although the squadron’s formative years were conducted in Douglas A-20 Havocs and later de Havilland Mosquitos, its most recent incarnation was as a transport and rescue squadron between April 1993 and June 1994, something Jeffers is drawing on as he reconnects the squadron to its past. (When he spoke with Skies, he was between meetings with members of the 418 Squadron Association, which has safeguarded memorabilia and unit history in a hangar in Edmonton.)
At present, the squadron is comprised of about 44 personnel working through a plan to transition the SAR squadrons from the legacy fleets of CC-115 Buffalo and CC-130H Hercules to the new CC-295, which conducted its first test flight with manufacturer Airbus on July 4.
Jeffers has divided the squadron into two teams: a home team to finalize the administrative details of standing up the unit and review the courseware being developed by CAE and Airbus; and an away team of aircrew and maintainers who will begin initial cadre training on the CC-295 at Airbus’ facility in Spain in September.
“The bulk of our effort goes to figuring out how to meet contractual timelines and how to safely transition the SAR units to new aircraft,” he said. “It is a complex issue, but I think we have a pretty good plan. We have a really talented group of aircrew and maintainers.”
The first CC-295 is expected to arrive in Comox in April 2020 and the schoolhouse will officially open six months later in October or early November. In between, 418 Squadron will work with the SAR test and evaluation flight of 434 Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron to assess the aircraft and to complete various manuals on how best to fly and employ the technical capabilities of the airplane.
Stepping from what are essentially analog aircraft into digital touchscreen cockpits might pose an initial challenge for aircrews, said Jeffers, who saw pilots struggle with a change to larger commercial aircraft during a stint as a civil aviation instructor pilot.
“The Air Force has great centres to advise us on how best to do that, so I don’t have any great concerns,” he said. “We just have to watch that [we’re] not leaning too far forward.”
The greater challenge may be taking full advantage of an array of sensors, night vision systems and heads-up displays that are new to SAR aircrews with the CC-295. Rather than “completely changing how we are going to do business, what we plan to do is use the sensors but leave some room as we transition, through further operational test and evaluation, to really explore those true capabilities of the sensors,” he said. “It will take us some time to figure that out.”
Once the new SAR centre is deemed ready for training, 418 Squadron will begin the process of transitioning 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron to the new aircraft. While half the squadron maintains the SAR line of tasking, the other half will go through a series of conversion courses. Those on SAR duty will be augmented by additional resources. The Air Force has drawn up a plan that would see 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron retire its air-to-air refuelling role to support each SAR squadron as it transitions, but Jeffers noted that attrition and other factors could force a re-think.
“Right now it is 435 [Squadron, but] the potential exists as we go through the transition that it could become an RCAF-led effect.”
As part of the process, 442 Squadron will gradually scale down its operational training unit (OTU) responsibilities for the Buffalo and transfer its CH-149 Cormorant training centre to 418 Squadron. The larger vision is a single centre of excellence for all SAR aircraft and trades, including the Canadian Forces School of Search and Rescue, under 418 Squadron in Comox.
“Everything falls under the one school,” said Jeffers. “That has been a success in other training centres. [SAR training] is working perfectly now, but we are looking forward to having it all under one command.”
In the interim, the centre will deliver aircrew and maintenance technician training for the CC-295 and Cormorant, as well as the legacy Buffalo and H-model Hercules with a mix of contracted and Air Force instruction.
In fact, the centre will feature new advanced simulators for both the legacy aircraft, “and that is a big transition for us,” said Jeffers. “It takes [training] flying out of the skies and puts it into simulation.”