Discovery Air Defence Services is supplying upgraded Vietnam-era, single-seat Douglas A-4 Skyhawks to the German Luftwaffe for aggressor training. The aircraft will retain their C-registry and will feature the Discovery Air logo and the Canadian flag on their vertical stabilizers. Craig “Rocco” Richard/DADS Photo
Repurposing civilian aircraft for military use dates back to the dawn of powered flight and continues to this day. The most current example is the Boeing P-8 Poseidon intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform. It’s a development of the company’s Next Generation 737, the latest iteration of a commercial aircraft first flown in 1967. The regulatory approvals and permit process are of necessity, rigorous.
But what about using military aircraft for commercial purposes? That’s the approach Discovery Air Defence Services (DADS) of Dorval, Que., is taking, by flying vintage but extensively-upgraded Douglas A-4 Skyhawks to provide aggressor training to the German Luftwaffe. DADS—formerly known as Top Aces—acquired the aircraft through the takeover of Advanced Training Systems International, Inc. (ATSI) of Mesa, Ariz., in December 2013. A subsidiary of Toronto-based Discovery Air Inc., DADS also operates a fleet of ex-Luftwaffe Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jets.
Two Skyhawks were delivered to Germany late last year, the first of seven covered by the agreement. The Vietnam-era, single-seat Skyhawks—which will retain their C-registry and feature the Discovery Air logo as well as the Canadian flag on their vertical stabilizers—were delivered by two former Royal Canadian Air Force pilots. Shawn “Burner” Byrne and Brad “Bear” Dolan flew from the refit centre in Mesa to Germany’s Wittmundhafen Air Base with stopovers in Ottawa, Goose Bay, Greenland, Iceland and Scotland.
None of this would have been possible without an unprecedented Memorandum of Understanding between Transport Canada and the Department of National Defence (DND). It’s an arrangement which Jacob (Koby) Shavit, president and chief executive officer of the parent Discovery Air, calls “a marvelous collaboration on a framework for the civilian operation of military aircraft, which has become the gold standard which our allies to try to replicate.”
Canada was one of the first members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries to pursue the contracted approach as a partial answer to increasingly tight defence budgets. In 2005, Top Aces (now DADS) was awarded a contract to provide aggressor training and support to the Canadian Forces.
“There was a need for an affordable sub-sonic aircraft that can do most roles in support of military operational training,” explained DADS president Paul Bouchard, one of the founders of Top Aces.
Shavit, who flew Skyhawks as well as McDonnell F-4 Phantoms for Israel, agreed. “It makes absolutely no sense to fly an F-18 . . . against another F-18 at a cost of $34,000 an hour each—as the Canadian government used to do, and as many other countries still do,” he said. Moreover, he added, the program has saved Canadian taxpayers “hundreds of millions of dollars.”
When DND began looking for a more affordable approach to “essential combat training,” Scott Shrubsole, now director of international programs at DADS, was a CF-18 Hornet pilot posted to the Air Staff at DND headquarters in Ottawa. “At the time, they were contracting out their services to a few U.S. companies and also a Canadian company, Northe rn Lights, but they couldn’t provide enough of the services,” he said.
However, Shrubsole added, “It sort of came to light that the U.S. companies in Canada were (unwittingly) operating without any air operators’ certificates and no authorization to conduct commercial operations in Canada.”
Operating under U.S. registration, their aircraft were covered by the “experimental” category under U.S. Federal Aviation Regulations Part 91, which Shrubsole points out are general rules applicable to weekend recreational flyers. Basically, the U.S. contractors didn’t see the need for more stringent regulation because they were directly engaged by the Project Management Office.
Not quite. The Aeronautics Act does set out very early that the Minister of Transport has fundamental regulatory responsibility. But, it also stipulates that “any matter relating to defence” is the jurisdiction of the Minister of National Defence; or at his direction, the Chief of the Defence Staff. When the federal government lawyers were drafting the legislation, the potential for jurisdictional conflict hadn’t been flagged because there was apparently no need at the time.
That oversight was what led to the U.S. companies providing aggressor training in Canadian airspace. “Somehow the flag got raised . . . and at that point the military was forced look at it,” said Shrubsole. “At this point, Transport Canada took the position that it really had nothing to do with them because these were 100 per cent military operations,” he recalled. DND agreed, but the fact that a “commercial service” was being provided to the Air Force presented a regulatory conundrum. Type certification of an ex-military aircraft flown by a civil operator is not straightforward, because elements such as ejection seats and external stores points do not come under civil aviation rules.
Ultimately, Transport Canada and DND thrashed out the MOU under which DADS operates today, and which Transport Minister Lisa Raitt lauded in a statement issued to Skies by her office. “Canada set the bar for a growing business of industry-provided military aviation support,” said Raitt.
“Today, Discovery Air is a true Canadian success story, providing world-class airborne training services to Canada and its allies around the world and showing that our capabilities are second to none. By continuing to succeed in global markets, Discovery Air is demonstrating that when Canadian firms expand and succeed abroad, jobs and opportunities are created here at home. . . . As part of our commitment to creating new export opportunities for Canadian firms as part of the Defence Procurement Strategy, we will continue to work with Discovery Air to ensure its world-leading capabilities continue to bring it success at home and abroad,” continued the Transport Minister in her email.
TEARDOWN AND REBUILD
DADS acquires aircraft either directly from governments or from other companies that previously purchased them from governments. “We really do our own assessment of whether it’s supportable and whether it is going to have an adequate life to support the annual flying rates for the number of years we expect to operate it,” explained Bouchard.
DADS has torn down the Skyhawks aircraft to depot-level inspection standards, sending the Pratt & Whitney engines out for overhaul. Everything else has been done in-house, including the installation of new military or civil avionics as required. Garmin systems are used in the completely rewired Skyhawks, but some “steam gauges” have been retained where suitable. They also have a traffic collision avoidance system as well as the capability of dropping practice munitions.
“We can do it end to end: bring it in, tear it down to the most basic level, build it back up, modify it with in-house engineering and certify it—which sets us apart from most companies similar to us,” said Bouchard, explaining that the process adds up to “many hundreds of hours over several months.” He said that similar projects on a government contract with a major original equipment manufacturer probably would involve “a few years and many more people.”
DADS is stepping up its game even further with a “quite well advanced” acquisition of F-16 Fighting Falcons, with which it plans to offer aggressor training to the U.S. and other NATO allies operating the latest generation of stealth fighters.
“It’s a question of what aircraft is best suited to the customer’s training,” said Bouchard. “Modernized ‘fourth generation’ F-16s or even F-18s are the appropriate platforms for F-35 (Lightning II) and F-22 (Raptor) training. They need a capable threat to fly against. Once Western air forces truly go into the ‘fifth generation’ training environment . . . all the benefits are magnified in terms of operating costs and the hours available on those types of platforms.”