Canadian ‘zombie’ reporting on the Sea King/Cyclone issue

Recently, the Halifax Chronicle-Herald has carried four items relating to the CH-124 Sea King and the CH-148 Cyclone. The first was “Sea Kings’ 50th birthday still a point of pride” by Marilla Stephenson (19 July), the next was an editorial, “A question of safety for Sea Kings” (26 July) which was followed by a short news release from Canadian Press “Testing of Sea King replacement to begin in August” (28 July) and a somewhat lengthier piece by Murray Brewster “Sea King choppers could retire sooner under U.S. aircraft-maker's proposal” (29 July).

These items cover the waterfront with respect to current reporting on the Sea King/Cyclone issue. The Stephenson article is, in my opinion, the best of the four.  Without glossing over the obvious difficulties in keeping a 50-year-old aircraft flying and operationally relevant – she concludes by observing that:

While efforts to secure delivery of a new shipborne helicopter may indeed be one of the worst procurement stories in Canada’s military history, the 50-year performance of the Sea Kings, despite incredibly demanding circumstances, is perhaps one of its best.

The Chronicle-Herald editorial raises the old chestnut of the airworthiness of the Sea King and frankly, I had expected a more nuanced commentary from the Editorial Board than this: “Are we putting our armed forces personnel at undue risk in outdated and dangerous helicopters?”

Paul Krugman, the distinguished economics columnist for the New York Times, “Rubio and the Zombies” (14 February) has a term for ideas that are convincingly refuted, only to be resurrected time and again. These are ‘zombie ideas’ and the state of the Sea Kings’ airworthiness is one of the biggest zombies of them all.

At the risk of repeating the obvious, the airworthiness of the Canadian Sea King, and indeed Sea Kings worldwide, has the attention of those responsible for its maintenance and based on the evidence, they have an enviable record. It should be borne in mind that the President of the United States flies in a Sea King and this alone would suggest that the airworthiness of the Sea King is not a headline issue. (We will return to the presidential helicopter later.)

The Canadian Press release and the Brewster article express surprise that the logjam over the acceptance of the Cyclone is finally showing signs of easing. Clearly, the status quo was no longer tenable and - while the public is certainly not privy to the legal battles being fought between the various teams of lawyers – something has changed.

In an attempt to divine the meaning of the Canadian Press article, Brewster at least partly attributes the shift to the recent Cabinet shuffle and clever salesmanship by Sikorsky and its parent, United Technologies. As always, lurking in the background is that old zombie idea regarding the supposed airworthiness issues relating to the Sea King.

It is highly likely that the movement on the Cyclone file came from developments in the United States, not in Canada, and particularly relate to the renewed competition for the presidential helicopter. According to a report in the New York Times, “Few Suitors to Build a New Marine One” by Christopher Drew (28 July), Sikorsky will be the sole bidder for the contract to replace the presidential Sea Kings. This contract, along with a potential order for the USAF Combat SAR helicopter, both using the Cyclone airframe/engine combination, has effectively created a ‘critical mass’ which makes the prospect of the resolution of whatever technical (as opposed to legal) issues affect the Cyclone more attractive to Sikorsky.

So there we have it. With one honourable exception, the public has yet again been pandered to with respect to the issues surrounding the replacement of the Sea King. It’s long past time that Canadian commentators take a deep breath and resist the temptation to leap to ‘zombie journalism’ and place the facts – just the facts – in front of their readership.