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The Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment (AETE) is unlikely to move from 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alta., until at least 2021, but already its location is attracting interest from potential future tenants.
“The AETE building is the second-largest we have on the base, [so] there are a lot of eyes on my hangar,” Col Eric Grandmont, AETE’s commanding officer, told Skies in a recent interview.
While no one has shown up with paint swatches and asked to measure for new drapes, “a few people at different levels did walkthroughs,” he said. “There is a lot of interest, and rightly so. It could help a lot in the transition as new fighter capabilities come in and allow the base to grow.”
The AETE hangar had been considered a likely destination for a new squadron of Boeing F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornets, had the government proceeded with a plan to acquire 18 aircraft as an interim measure to augment the Royal Canadian Air Force’s current fleet of 76 CF-188 Hornets.
Though the Liberals have since opted to acquire 25 Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18 Hornets–18 operational and seven for spare parts–following a commercial dispute with Boeing, the AETE building is still part of the RCAF’s future expansion plans for the fighter fleet.
AETE’s pending move made headlines in early December when Patrick Finn, the assistant deputy minister for materiel (ADM Mat) at the Department of National Defence (DND), told the Standing Committee on Public Accounts that the $470 million allotted for acquisition of interim fighter jets and an upgrade program to the entire Hornet fleet also included funding to cover AETE’s relocation.
The comment touched off an exchange with the committee chair, Conservative MP Kevin Sorenson of Battle River-Crowfoot, Alta., over when the decision was made and whether it might impact jobs in Cold Lake.
In fact, the possible relocation of AETE dates back to the Defence Renewal Plan, an effort begun in 2012 to streamline business processes, find efficiencies, and maximize operational results across the Canadian Armed Forces and DND. As part of a change introduced in 2016 to how the RCAF and ADM Mat contract maintenance and support service, known as the Sustainment Initiative, DND conducted a review called the Engineering Flight Test Rationalization to assess ways to make AETE more sustainable, effective and efficient.
The Flight Test Establishment had originally moved to Cold Lake from Ottawa in 1971 to take advantage of the large test range and more favourable flying climate. At the time, AETE owned a substantial fleet of instrumented test aircraft. Today, of the RCAF’s 19 fleets of aircraft, AETE operates just two: two CF-188 Hornets and two CH-146 Griffons. It also has five CT-114 Tutors that are used mostly for proficiency flying.
“For the remaining 17 fleets, we go on the road and deploy to do testing,” explained Grandmont, a flight test engineer. “Which means we are on the road a lot.”
As fleets have become more digital, AETE has changed how it conducts tests. Where in the past an aircraft might have been instrumented from nose to tail–a process that could take months–AETE now has instrumentation packages that leverage the digital architecture of aircraft and can be quickly installed on location.
“The technology is there to be able to get pretty much all the data we need,” he said of the newer and upgraded fleets. “Every project will have specific requirements, so it doesn’t mean we don’t have to put string gauges and stuff like that on an aircraft, but we are trying to maximize the existing systems onboard the aircraft.”
However, that expanded travel, which can range from three to seven months a year, has made it difficult to attract test pilots and flight test engineers to Cold Lake. Aside from fighter pilots, who are already based at 4 Wing, few from the transport, tactical aviation, maritime patrol, maritime helicopter and search and rescue fleets are willing to volunteer.
“We are asking people to move their family to Cold Lake and then deploy all the time to do testing,” said Grandmont. “And it’s not that easy to travel to and from Cold Lake. It can become a 14- to 15-hour day or a two-day (trip) each way.”
In addition to attracting and retaining talent–“I am starting to have a line up just based on the news from a couple of weeks ago; there are already people calling and asking, when are you guys moving?” said Grandmont–the return to Ottawa would also allow AETE to capitalize on testing resources already at the Ottawa International Airport operated by Transport Canada, which also employs test pilots and flight test engineers, and the National Research Council Canada’s flight research laboratory.
Transport Canada and the NRC focus primarily on commercial flight, but all three organizations use similar support systems to develop aircraft instrumentation packages, to test basic systems, and to analyze data. Transport Canada also has a new flight simulator building to accommodate the CAE 3000 Series helicopter cockpit simulators for the Canadian Coast Guard Bell 412EPI and Bell 429 helicopters, as well as fixed-wing simulators for a Cessna Citation C550 and a Beechcraft King Air.
“We gain a lot of efficiency because those simulators are way cheaper to operate than what we do right now,” said Grandmont.
The aim would be to create a Canadian centre of excellence for flight test science, engineering instrumentation and evaluation, he added.
Among AETE’s 50 to 60 recent and current projects were systems testing on the CH-147F Chinooks prior to their first operational deployment to Mali under hot and dusty conditions; preparation of the CH-148 Cyclone maritime helicopter for its first deployment aboard HMCS Ville de Quebec in summer 2018; test and evaluation of CF-188 Hornet systems and gear as the RCAF finalizes an upgrade package; and testing of systems and the airframe as the CP-140 Aurora completes a four-phased incremental modernization project and structural life extension.
“Any question that cannot be answered using computer models or wind tunnels, then flight test is the last test to be able to answer those questions before a system on an aircraft can get an airworthiness certification,” explained Grandmont.