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If a day spent in the air and on the ground with 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron in Petawawa, Ont., is anything to go by, it’s clearly “third time lucky” for the RCAF crews who fly and support the Boeing CH-147F Chinook. Sometime in June, the last of 15 of the latest F models of the distinctive tandem-rotor helicopters was scheduled to arrive at the squadron’s new purpose-built facility, across the sprawling base from 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron and its fleet of Bell CH-146 Griffons. Including a 20-year in-service support contract with Boeing, as well as ongoing personnel and other internal costs, the new Chinooks represent a $6.7-billion investment by the Department of National Defence (DND).
Escorted by a pair of Griffons, the first Chinook helicopter (although the third built), arrived at Petawawa in June 2013 after an official welcome ceremony in Ottawa and a 140-kilometre hop up the picturesque Ottawa River Valley. Although two prototype Chinooks had rolled off the Boeing production line at Ridley Park, Pa., a year earlier, they had spent the intervening time undergoing flight and electric compatibility testing and evaluation in Mesa, Ariz., and the U.S. Naval Station at Patuxent, Md. At the welcome ceremony—attended by, among others, Chris Chadwick, Boeing’s president of military aircraft, and Leanne Caret, vice-president of its vertical lift division—then-Defence Minister Peter MacKay described the aircraft as “not your grandfathers’ Chinook.”
Canada’s relationship with Chinooks dates back nearly a half century, beginning with eight C models which, despite becoming maintenance-intensive, remained in service until 1991, when they were sold to the Royal Netherlands Air Force when the government of the day slashed budgets. Then, six D models were acquired from the U.S. Army in Afghanistan for $292 million in late 2008, as the Canadian combat mission ramped up. Two were lost in Afghanistan: the first was downed by insurgent fire in August 2010, and the second rolled over during a night landing in brownout conditions the following May. After the cessation of combat operations, the four remaining aircraft were put up for sale “as is” at the U.S. Air Force Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group in the Arizona desert near Tucson.
Now, nearly three years after the last D was shut down at Kandahar Airfield in July 2011, the replacement F is the most advanced international Chinook in the world. LCol Duart Townsend, 450 Squadron’s commanding officer, told Vertical that it offers not only better reliability and longer-range capabilities, but also a significantly improved electrical system with a Canada-specific wiring harness that’s much easier to diagnose and repair, as well as enhanced defensive and other systems which should keep them operational for decades. Their mission is troop assaults; transport of artillery, troops, ammunition, fuel and supplies within military theatres of operation; and, inevitably, supporting humanitarian aid missions.
The need for renewed heavy rotary lift capability was part of the government’s 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy, which drove the capability parameters. They, in turn, dictated the performance requirements. But in opting for the latest Chinooks, Canada had to take into account that it is a demographically-small country with a small air force and a huge land mass. That necessitated some fundamental modifications to what was supposed to be an off-the-shelf aircraft. For example, bigger fuel tanks doubled the big helicopter’s range over a standard CH-47F model—to as much as 1,200 kilometres.
“The CH-147F represents the largest development within the Chinook family since we introduced the original F model to the U.S. Army,” said Stephen Parker, who is Boeing’s vice president of cargo helicopters and H-47 program manager. Indeed, Parker said that over one million non-recurring engineering hours were required for Boeing to design, develop and test Canada’s CH-147F. “Canada’s unique requirements necessitated the changes that needed to be made to the aircraft.”
Canada signed a contract with Boeing in June 2009 to acquire a fleet of 16 Chinooks (later reduced to 15 aircraft). The first flight of a CH-147F was in June 2012, which was then used to fly a 300-hour flight test program. The first aircraft was then delivered to Canada in June 2013, and the last aircraft is scheduled to be delivered in June of this year, which Parker said is ahead of schedule. “When you think about the complexity of the CH-147F program, it is remarkable that we were able to meet every milestone (stay ahead in many cases), and remain on budget.”
MORE THAN SKIN DEEP
With a crew of four, Chinooks can transport 32 seated troops or 24 casualty litters. They can also carry cargo pallets or externally slung loads with ease, as demonstrated with a 2.5-ton army truck during our visit to Petawawa. Moreover, the ability to adjust lift in either rotor makes the Chinook less sensitive to shifts in a slung load’s center-of-gravity, and the transmission linkage is such that if one Honeywell T55-GA-714A engine— fitted with full authority digital engine control (FADEC) and putting out 4,733 shaft horsepower (3,529 kilowatts)—fails, the other can power both of its counter-rotating rotors.
At an empty 28,000 pounds (12,700 kilograms), the Chinook can lift 25,000 pounds (11,340 kilograms), including crew and fuel, so it’s particularly good at moving things, especially into places a Hercules or some other fixed-wing airlifter can’t go. “This thing has capability like crazy,” Townsend said. “It has probably one of the highest proportions of payload to its own weight . . . so its mission as a heavy rotary-lift capability fits well with the movement of troops or sustaining supplies.”
When compared to the classic F model Chinook, the CH-147F has a new machined airframe to accommodate the large long-range fuel tanks, a new electrical system designed to be more easily diagnosed and maintained, and a new aircraft power unit. “This aircraft produces a sixth of a megawatt of onboard power,” Townsend added. “With everything working, even if one of two full systems drops off line, the other is only loaded to about 85 per cent. Both sit around 10 to 12 per cent each. If you have a very capable system and you only use it a little bit less, its reliability is enhanced. And our auxiliary power unit alone is as powerful as most other Chinooks’ main generators.” That would be critical, he said, “when you’re on your own up North.”
The “steam-driven” analog panels of earlier models have been replaced by a Rockwell Collins digital cockpit fitted with a common avionics architecture system with improved electrical, avionics and communication systems. There are five multi-function displays, a moving map display, a digital modem, a BAE Systems digital advanced flight control system, and a data transfer system for pre-flight and mission data. “That cockpit is on par with some of the newest advanced airliners in the world,” Maj Martin Gow, officer commanding of 450’s Operational Training Flight (OTF), told Vertical.
A chin-mounted turret houses an electro-optical system based on L3 Wescam’s MX-15 high-definition system, enabling flight in what Townsend called “low illumination scenarios.” He said night vision goggles are “great” except when there’s effectively no light for them to amplify, which could happen when there’s a new moon and cloud cover. “It’s dark, but the ground is always emitting IR (infrared) energy.” Moreover, he said, “The holy grail of electro-optics is data fusion,” through which the L3 Wescam hardware produces a high-definition blend of thermal and image-intensification into one display. Any of the customizable Rockwell Collins displays can be used to display thermal images, which can then be overlaid with a tactical display.
Integrated with the cockpit, crew protection is enhanced by a state-of-the-art electronic warfare suite comparable with what’s on the RCAF’s four CC-177 Globemasters and fleet of Lockheed Martin CC-130J Hercules aircraft. When the Northrop-Grumman AN/AAQ-24 Nemesis directional infrared countermeasures turret detects a missile launch, it determines whether it’s a threat, warns the aircrew, and activates countermeasures to track and defeat the threat. It has been proven against 35 missiles in totally autonomous live fire tests.
Parker said that given the modifications made to the Chinook at Canada’s request, it is now the envy of the Chinook community around the world. “The Canadian Chinook is one of the most advanced military cargo helicopters ever delivered to the global market,” he added.
Boeing is hoping that other countries will also recognize the advanced capabilities that come with the Canadianized Chinook, as the company begins to market it to the international community. “We are seeing lots of interest coming from countries in Europe and the Middle East for the long-range international Chinook.”
Townsend, the last Chinook pilot to be trained on the CH-147C before the aircraft was retired in 1991, had logged only 115 hours on that type. But, with 2,000 hours on Griffons and legacy Bell CH-135 Twin Hueys before that, he brings considerable operational and managerial experience to his latest RCAF assignment. Described in DND files as “a proactive leader with unequalled mission focus,” he “overcame many obstacles and unexpected challenges” in making sure the D models were acquired in Afghanistan. That was after a government-commissioned panel chaired by former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley pointed out in January 2008 that added helicopter airlift capacity was urgently needed to replace lightly-armored ground vehicles targeted by improvised explosive devices.
The government initially responded by trying to jump the queue in Boeing’s F-model order book, but that didn’t work for a number of reasons, notably due to the aforementioned attempts to customize what was supposed to be an off-the-shelf aircraft. In the meantime, the Canadians in Afghanistan found themselves begging their allies for helicopter support. The Dutch came through with some of their Chinooks; in a cruel irony, those included some of the upgraded platforms sold by Canada more than a decade earlier.
Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan began in October 2001 when Special Operations troops from Joint Task Force 2 were deployed from Petawawa. The first regular troops began arriving early in 2002, but Canada assumed a larger role in 2006 when it redeployed troops to Kandahar province. The 2,500 personnel included 1,200 in the main combat battle group, which bore the brunt of the battle and suffered many casualties from roadside bombs. “Canadians have carried a heavy burden,” Manley’s panel said, citing the rising human and financial costs of the mission. The number of lives lost at that point was 80, but it eventually tallied 158, the largest loss of Canadian troops since the Korean War.
That mission finally wound down earlier this year, but the government and the military remain keenly aware of the need to maintain the capability to move troops and equipment quickly and safely. Chinooks offer that utility and protection, with D-model crews in Afghanistan having flown 7,084.5 hours, while carrying 90,723 passengers and 7,097,989 pounds of cargo, in a usually hostile environment.
The personnel at 450 Squadron—who now number about 240 and should reach a full complement of about 400 in 2015—are under the operational command of 1 Wing at CFB Kingston, Ont., which is tasked with providing combat-ready support to the Army. In addition to the huge hangars accommodating four aircraft each, while also housing operational, training, maintenance, storage and logistics facilities, 450 has a new ramp, fuel facility and aircraft parking apron.
“Petawawa . . . provides the best support to Army and special operations forces, many of which are co-located there, while minimizing the associated infrastructure costs for the new fleet,” Gen Walt Natynczyk, an Army careerist and former Chief of the Defence Staff, pointed out. “From this location, the Chinooks will maintain a high-readiness posture for rapid deployment.”
Townsend expects that by the time it is fully operational, 450 Squadron will probably take 20 to 25 per cent of all the helicopter pilots coming out of the main rotary training center at Portage la Prairie, Man. That means 60 pilots for 30 crews, plus others in postings, operational training and other aspects of their careers. “The squadron is all under one roof, but it has some fairly large moving pieces which are coordinated but functionally independent. As things settle down, we’re set to train up to 18 pilots, nine flight engineers, and nine loadmasters a year, when the operational training flight is fully up. Probably the optimal load would be about 12 pilots, six flight engineers and six loadmasters a year.”
Boeing’s on-time deliveries have presented 450 with a conundrum, in that the production rate has been running ahead of the squadron’s ability to reach full strength, a critical timeline that can’t be rushed because of the time it takes to train people.
“You can’t knit these folks overnight. And these are complicated systems, very advanced systems; we want to make sure we give due regard to how we implement them,” said Townsend. “The good thing,” about the F, he grinned, is that “it’s an incredibly advanced Chinook, if not the most advanced Chinook in the world today.” Then, he laughed, “The bad thing is, it’s an incredibly advanced Chinook. . . .”
So what’s it like in the air? “This aircraft is very stable,” Townsend said, explaining that heavy loads only increase that stability. “And that extends even to its raw handling characteristics when you drop down below all the levels of automation.” It fell to Capt James Keenan, an Afghanistan veteran and the OTF’s deputy officer commanding, to put one of the Chinooks through its paces for Vertical, on a flight up the still snow-covered river valley from base.
Keenan demonstrated the Chinook’s remarkable manoeuvrability for such a large helicopter, its big three-bladed rotors emitting a heavy thudding sound as he increased pitch on tight turns. His party piece was an approach to an abandoned railroad trestle tucked tightly into a narrow and heavily-treed valley. Once overhead, Keenan pivoted the aircraft into line and slowly descended to put the rear undercarriage on the trestle, with one of the two flight engineer/loadmasters leaning out the starboard door and talking him down.
Townsend said that, setting aside the high-tech upgrades, the Chinook is a “mechanical beast that likes to work, so when it sits and isn’t used, it gets kind of cranky.” Responsibility for keeping that at bay rests with Maj Jennifer Morrison, the squadron’s senior aircraft maintenance engineering officer (SAMEO), who, in addition to her own technicians, can call on an in-house Boeing team which includes some U.S. Army retirees. A software engineering graduate of Royal Military College who’s keenly aware of the computing requirements of modern aircraft, she spent a year in additional training before she was posted and reports directly to Townsend.
“Absolutely,” she replied when asked whether there were any particular challenges with the Chinooks from her perspective. “This is one of the first fleets under the in-service support contracting framework. Working with the original equipment manufacturer, we’re in a much deeper relationship than we’ve typically seen—and for much longer. With other fleets, we’re dealing potentially with hundreds of contracts, depending on what item you’re dealing with. Boeing [is] our support provider and they’re responsible for providing parts as a service, so we don’t own the parts. It’s a very different concept.”
Morrison agreed that there have been “growing pains” as Boeing and its customer adjusted to this way of doing business, which, she said, has made her job easier in some ways. “We’re no longer directly concerned with stock levels and obsolescence management. These are now services that are provided and Boeing has a lot of experience on the engineering side. . . . It’s nice in a way to have access to that support network, but we’ve had to adopt a different mindset to work through this whole concept of parts as a service.”
As for flight training, Maj Gow, who logged about 3,000 hours on Griffons, became involved with Chinooks when, while nearing the end of his time as an instructor at Gagetown, N.B., he was asked to join the Chinook program as it was readying its U.S. Army D models in Afghanistan. He never did participate in that effort; rather, he spent three-and-a-half years at Fort Rucker, Ala., training U.S. Army pilots.
He said the F models are “at least a generation or even two generations ahead of anything we’ve operated in tactical helicopter aviation in Canada before” and “the way the systems operate requires a tremendous shift in thinking. You don’t need to watch all the gauges because the aircraft will tell when something is wrong and bring it to your attention. You need to appreciate and trust what the aircraft tells you. The technology can clearly improve pilots’ situational awareness, but “we need to teach people what to do when their attention has been liberated.”
The “schoolhouse” at 450 Squadron, incorporated into the sprawling headquarters, is about 75 per cent complete, with most of the material, courseware and preparations in place. But, at the time of the Vertical visit in early spring, the training devices were still being evaluated and undergoing final testing at CAE Inc. in Montreal. “They just need to be shipped and reassembled and tested on site,” Gow said. “It’s actually going quite well.” The four simulators include a gunnery trainer—a huge parabola dubbed the “Death Star” that is a cost-effective way to train crews on the Chinooks’ door and ramp machine guns.
But those last stages “will take a while,” and the squadron needs time to train its operators on all the systems so that everyone is teaching the same way. “We need to slow ourselves down and take time . . . so that students don’t get conflicting messages from different instructors and also so that the back-end crews aren’t taught different lessons from the front-end crews, and that everybody has a compatible methodology. Standardization among the crews is very important. That’s probably what’s going to take us the most time.”
Asked how he expects his graduates to compare with Chinook crews elsewhere, he was initially reluctant. “The airplane’s state-of-the-art; it’s actually going to take us some time to learn to take full advantage of its capabilities.” That being said, he felt that RCAF crews “are on par [with] if not better than a lot of the other air forces in the world.” His assessment was based on the fact that a Canadian pilot arriving in Petawawa has nearly 300 hours logged in at least four aircraft—more than a U.S. Army student at Fort Rucker—in addition to having an instrument rating.
“Technically, a U.S. Army pilot does not even earn his wings until he’s a graduate of the Chinook school, whereas in the Canadian military they’ve already earned their wings. If we design the program properly, we can really capitalize on that tremendous amount of experience.”