Who do we believe?

There is an article in the press that suggest completely different views on when the first operational H-92 ‘Cyclone’ helicopter (CH-148 in Canadian military terms) will be delivered to the Canadian Forces by Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation. Greg Weston’s article for CBC News is entitled ominously “New helicopters may not be ready for 5 years.” Citing “informed industry sources,” Weston suggests that the new design, sophisticated electronics and military mission systems “will take years to integrate and become combat-ready.” In the same article, Chris Alexander, the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, is quoted from an interview conducted on CBC’s “Power and Politics” program on Tuesday (03 July) that the helicopters would start to arrive “soon.” This is a radically different timeframe. Who should we believe?  What information are they basing their predictions upon? Could they both be right or are they both wrong?

There is no doubt that a lot of political ‘spin’ is being applied to the whole situation. The Harper government is thoroughly weary of the almost daily pounding they are taking over defence procurement problems. To be fair, a lot of this was not of their making and that is especially true of the maritime helicopter saga. Jean Chretiens’s decision to cancel the EH-101 Cormorant deal was costly and created a political legacy that hurt Paul Martin’s government in the next election.

I was the only mid-rank naval officer on the maritime air staff team that put together the ‘Son-of-EH-101’ Statement of Requirement when the estimates were being reworked.  All that was known with certainty was that requirements that called for an EH-101-like helicopter would be rejected at the political level. So, the plan was changed from ‘justify what the air force and navy will need’ to ‘justify what the air force and navy has’. A number of potential helicopter options did not even compare with what the Sea King could deliver. The nightmare scenario amongst the staff team was that a ‘low ball’ bid for a Russian helicopter could actually satisfy the government’s weak appetite for defence spending. In the end, the Sikorsky H-92, the military version of their S-92 helicopter, offered a considerable improvement in performance over the Sea King and was the best ‘acceptable choice’ to the government.  Considering the other potential outcomes, the air force and navy were quite happy with it as I recall, and with good reason.

While most Canadians know the S-92 as the aircraft operated by Cougar Helicopters that crashed off the coast of Newfoundland on 12 March 2009, killing 17 of the 18 people onboard, the S-92 has actually amassed an impressive safety and serviceability record. In fact, that Cougar crash is, to date, the only fatal accident for that type of helicopter that I could find (let me know if there is/are others). There have been two other major crashes but no one was killed in either event. Mike Cunningham, the Transportation Safety Board Inspector in charge of the investigation said: “Due to the crashworthy features of the S-92, all 18 people survived the initial impact with the water.” The final report cited 16 different factors that resulted in the crash. (You can watch the TSB simulation of the crash on YouTube here.)

The Sikorsky Aircraft website provides a wealth of information about the S-92. Here is some of it:

Sikorsky has delivered 151 S-92 aircraft to operators worldwide since 2004. Of those aircraft, 25 are engaged in SAR operations. The fleet has accumulated a total of 370,000 flight hours. Aircraft availability stands at 95 percent.

So, the S-92 was just entering service when the Martin government committed to purchase the H-92 naval version of the aircraft. For Sikorsky to promise a military aircraft from a brand new civil aircraft tells me two things:

  • First, they had great confidence that the S-92 was a superlative aircraft, which has subsequently proven to be the case; and
  • Second, Sikorsky was intent on using the Canadian order of the H-92 as a means of positioning itself to replace the large fleet of older naval helicopters used around the world.

You can read a detailed timeline of all events related to the H-92 on the “Defence Industrial Daily” website here.

The S-92 continues to rack up contracts for use by both government and civilian users. The South Korean Coast Guard has signed a contract for a S-92 helicopter to conduct long-range search and rescue operations. The aircraft will be delivered in 2013. They will become the second such force to operate the S-92, joining the Coast Guard of Ireland, which is replacing the first of its six older SH-61 helicopters with the S-92. CHC Helicopter operates these helicopters on behalf of the Coast Guard of Ireland. They will add four S-92 SAR helos and they will base out airports at Sligo, Waterford and Dublin. The first S-92 accepted by the Coast Guard of Ireland is, in fact, the 33rd S-92 helicopter CHC has purchased from Sikorsky Aircraft since 2004, and the fifth dedicated SAR aircraft. Their other four S-92 SAR aircraft are based in Scotland under contract to Britain’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

By my count, there are now eleven government operators of the S-92, with the largest being a fleet of 16 aircraft flown by the Royal Saudi Air Force, and there are 14 commercial operators in 10 countries with fleets that number between one and 33 aircraft.

To date, Canada is the only country to order the naval version of the S-92. The H-92 will benefit from the extensive experience that Sikorsky has gained by operation of the S-92 in the marine environment. A Sikorsky press release in June 2011 announced that the S-92 offshore fleet has flown more than 290,000 flight hours, with 83 aircraft in the offshore mission. Offshore aircraft availability rates reached 96% in April 2011 (a continued and steady increase from 92% in 2009 to 94% in 2010). The S-92 is unique in that it has been certified to the “FAA/EASA ‘Harmonized Part 29 Requirements’, as amended through Amendment 47.” As the Sikorsky PR website proudly states, it is “the only aircraft to have been certified to this rigorous airworthiness standard without exception or waiver.

According to NAVAIR News, Sikorsky intended that the H-92 become the successor to the H-60 Blackhawk and Seahawk families of aircraft. Sikorsky also promoted the H-92 as an optimal platform for tactical troop transport, configured with folding crashworthy seats for 22 combat-equipped marines. But, the VU-22 ‘Osprey’, which began flight testing in 1989 and which began Marine Corps crew training in 2000, is their replacement for the CH-46 ‘Sea Knight’ helicopter and the USN currently has no plans to buy the H-92. That does not mean they will never buy the H-92, and a lot hinges on what happens in Canada.

Sikorsky continues to believe that aging helicopters and evolving mission requirements will create a naval niche for the H-92. It should also not be forgotten that the SH-3 ‘Sea King’ (and the related SH-61) are still in widespread use with navies and coast guards around the world and will soon need replacement, just as they do in Canada.  So, Sikorsky needs to ‘get it right’ with the Canadian order to prove that the H-92 is the right choice for all of their other potential clients. Failing to do so will have far greater consequences for them than just the penalty payments being talked about on the Canadian order. The VU-22 can only operate off of ‘large-deck amphibs’, so the USN will eventually need a modern and more capacious helicopter to fly off of its cruiser and smaller-deck warships. That the H-92 has a flexible internal configuration that allows it to supplement existing navy-marine transport capabilities will make it valuable in a wide range of combat and non-combat missions.

I think it is likely that Sikorsky is working hard to get the H-92 into Canadian hands so that it can ‘earn its spurs’ with the RCAF and RCN, which are widely recognized as being expert in the operation of medium helicopters from relatively small warships. It may well be that a version of the helicopter, one with fairly limited mission capabilities, will be available quite “soon” as Chris Alexander suggested, once the Air Worthiness Certificate issue is settled. This is largely a bureaucratic snag, and is not directly related to the aircraft or its basic systems. But, Sikorsky would be ill advised to rush a full capability aircraft into production and run the risk of the kind of fatal crashes and low serviceability rates that have plagued the VU-22 program. The Canadian government would be loathe to have to deal with that sort of fiasco, the RCAF and RCN would hate to see their new ‘wonder machines’ destroyed because no attrition has been built into the number procured, and the public would mourn the loss of airmen and sailors if the accidents were fatal.

No, it is far better to take a ‘slow and steady’ approach to this, prove the aircraft’s worth, and restore the RCAF-RCN’s reputation as a world-leader in the use of maritime helicopters. It may take a number of years to complete this process, as Mr. Weston’s article suggests, but the downstream benefits for both Sikorsky and the RCAF-RCN are huge. Surely some kind of arrangement can be negotiated that will benefit both parties, rather than resorting to litigation, which will end up really benefiting no one.