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In spite of the fact that his pilots are currently grounded, the commander of 12 Wing Shearwater in Nova Scotia remains optimistic about the future of the CH-148 Cyclone as Canada’s new maritime helicopter capability.
Col Peter Allan told Skies on April 21 that both Cyclone manufacturer Sikorsky and BAE, which built the helicopter’s flight control system, are “fully engaged” in the ongoing investigation into a March 9 incident that saw a Cyclone experience a “momentary change in the descent rate” during a training mission.
While on the downwind approach to the Shearwater airfield, the 12 Wing crew experienced what the aircraft commander later described as “the feeling of driving too fast over a very big speed bump.”
At the same time, two advisory lights illuminated in the cockpit to indicate an issue with the flight control systems. Although the lights went out almost immediately and the helicopter landed with no damage or injuries, an investigation was launched.
“Normally you’d think you went through turbulence, but with the simultaneous illumination of the lights, we had to dig further,” explained Allan.
Data downloaded from helicopter indicated there had been some incident in the flight control system, prompting the commander of 1 Canadian Air Division to suspend flight operations for the fleet of CH-148 helicopters on March 12, pending an investigation into the occurrence.
“We don’t have a definitive answer yet. They were working in two separate labs trying to replicate the fault in the aircraft,” continued Allan. “We’ve had a few technical updates in the last week and they are making progress on figuring out what the issue is and what it means to the aircraft. However, I don’t have a timeline yet as to when they will have a resolution. ”
While awaiting the investigation findings, Allan said 12 Wing personnel remain focused on training enough aircrew and maintenance technicians to support the CH-148 when it officially takes over from the long-serving Sikorsky CH-124 Sea King, the last of which is set to retire by the end of 2018.
“We’re marching forward. My pilots aren’t flying, but that’s the only impact it’s having right now,” commented Allan. “The schoolhouse is still going full bore. The technicians are all training. The back end crews are still training because they’re in a phase where they are in groundschool and using simulators. We front-loaded groundschool and simulation for the pilots; we’re making up where we can.”
He confirmed the goal is still to reach initial operational capability (IOC) with the Cyclone by the spring of 2018, although he acknowledged it’s hard to predict how the current operational hiccup will shake out.
“The trick will always be how long it will take to implement the fix, once it has been identified.”
Prior to the March 9 incident, Allan reported that the Cyclone program had been making good progress.
“Over the course of the last year at Shearwater, we flew 488 hours on the Cyclone from April 2016 through March 2017,” he said. “We had steady growth in the flying rate. We culminated in February 2017 with 80 hours in the month. Those are largely test and evaluation hours but some training, too.”
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) has now accepted a total of 11 CH-148 Cyclones. The first six Block 1.0 aircraft have all been returned to Sikorsky for upgrades, leaving five Block 1.1 helicopters at the base. Two of those were signed back to Sikorsky to support the training centre. The remaining three are operated by 12 Wing’s Helicopter Operational Test and Evaluation Facility (HOTEF), which is responsible for operational testing of the new helicopter.
Over the last year, HOTEF has completed preliminary evaluation of the majority of sensors on the Cyclone.
“We have a good sense of what the sensor suites are capable of and how they will operate,” affirmed Allan. “We’ve taken a couple of small deployments with the aircraft to prove all the connectivity and systems required to support the helicopter away from base–doing the mission planning, relying on connection to servers, etc.–and we’ve demonstrated some good success.”
Earlier this year, Sikorsky completed another session of shipboard helicopter operational limitation (SHOL) testing with the Canadian navy, which saw the Cyclone operate in “ugly” Sea State 6 conditions featuring three-metre (9.9-foot) high waves.
“We’ve seen some photos of the Cyclone on the deck, holding on at what appears to be a 45-degree angle,” said Allan. “I’m still awaiting all the final test reports; they will help us define Cyclone operating limits on ships.”
Meanwhile, on the training side, 12 Wing’s 406 Maritime Operational Training Squadron has now moved into the Sikorsky-owned training facility at Shearwater, which is scheduled for an official naming ceremony on June 8. Allan said the building will be named in honour of former wartime service crews from 406 Squadron. Eventually, Sikorsky will transfer ownership of the “schoolhouse” to the RCAF.
“We’ve continued to build on the cadre of instructors to support the beginning of conversion training later this summer,” said Allan.
Currently, there are nine HOTEF pilots qualified on the CH-148, along with eight air combat systems officers (ACSOs) and nine airborne electronic sensor operators (AES Ops). On the maintenance side, 45 aviation (AVN) and 36 avionics (AVS) technicians are qualified and more are expected to graduate at the end of April.
Allan said the big challenge for 12 Wing over the coming months will be “training, training and more training.”
To facilitate the “fairly rapid transition” from Sea King to Cyclone, 12 Wing will need as many qualified aircrew and maintenance technicians as it can get.
“My first concern is always maintaining a maritime helicopter capability for Canada,” noted the Wing commander. “As we make that transition, I’m very focused on making sure we get people trained on the Cyclone before we’re out of the Sea King business. Our eyes are on the milestone of IOC in spring 2018, and then getting people out the door quickly on our first named deployment with the Royal Canadian Navy.”
Allan added that a sense of excitement pervades the base these days.
“I would say that as we’ve had more and more success with the Cyclone, there has been a sense of momentum. The helicopter is handling extremely well and pilot feedback continues to be very positive.”
He added that testing to date has so far proven the RCAF’s initial concept that one pilot can easily manage flying-related duties, leaving the other free to assist with mission systems management.
“Despite today’s status, I remain very optimistic about this program,” concluded Allan. “We have made a lot of progress in the last year and a half. Everyone is on board and sees the value Cyclone is bringing and the fact that it is here, it is real, it is flying and it is our future.”