Bell Textron Canada to upgrade Canada’s CH-146 helicopters

Avatar for Chris ThatcherBy Chris Thatcher | May 31, 2022

Estimated reading time 6 minutes, 29 seconds.

The Canadian government has awarded Bell Textron Canada a contract worth approximately C$800 million to extend the life of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) CH-146 Griffon helicopter.

The Royal Canadian Air Force Bell CH-146 Griffons perform a training flight in Quebec. Mike Reyno Photo

The contract, announced on May 30, is the second step in a two-phase process to keep the heavily used Griffon fleet of 85 helicopters flying into the early 2030s.

In January 2019, the federal government gave Bell a $90 million contract to develop, design and install new cockpit displays and engines, integrated sensor systems, communications and cryptographic equipment, cockpit voice and flight recorders, navigation systems, automatic flight control systems, and control display units on three prototype CH-146 airframes. The first, number 467, arrived at Bell’s facility in Mirabel, Quebec, in February 2021.

The CH-146 is a militarized variant of the Bell 412EP and serves as a combat tactical transport helicopter for the Army, a critical platform for special operations forces, a domestic search and rescue asset, and a utility platform for domestic responses such as floods and wildfires. The RCAF has integrated almost 45 mission kits to meet different user needs since the airframe first entered service in 1995.

The Griffon Limited Life Extension (GLLE) project is intended to address obsolescence issues with critical components and enhance the aircraft’s overall capability. Among the notable upgrades is a new electronically controlled Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6T-9 Twin-Pac engine.

Under a separate contract, the GLLE project will also deliver new flight simulation and training devices. The CH-146 simulators were built by CAE and delivered to the RCAF in the mid-1990s, shortly before the helicopters entered service. CAE continues to provide in-service support.

Bell Textron Canada was first awarded a contract for the CH-146 Griffon in 1992 and delivered 100 to the RCAF between 1994 and 1998. As the original manufacturer, the company still holds the intellectual property rights and was deemed “the only company certified to assess and define necessary design changes and associated repairs to the aircraft,” Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) said in a statement.

The Griffon upgrades will be done by Bell and several subcontractors. According to PSPC, Bell will modify the first nine helicopters and “then manage a competitive process to sub-contract suppliers to install modifications on the remaining 76 helicopters.” The first upgraded CH-146 is expected by 2024 and the entire upgrade program should be completed by 2028.

Despite just one OEM eligible for the contract, the government nonetheless considers the project to have “an incredible economic impact, benefiting the economy, the supply chain and, most importantly, the aerospace workers, who are the best in the world,” said François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry.

As part of its proposal, Bell stood up Team Griffon with CMC Electronics and Pratt & Whitney Canada and has committed to ensuring opportunities for the Canadian supply chain, including small and medium-sized businesses.

“We are proudly celebrating the award and implementation of the (GLLE) project for the RCAF by the government of Canada,” Steeve Lavoie, president of Bell Textron Canada, said in a statement. “Our teams, located from the East to the West Coast, in collaboration with industry partners, ensure that the skills required to sustain the Griffon remain resident in Canada. Our 1,300 employees feel privileged to perform the work that will support the fleet of the RCAF for their critical missions in Canada and abroad.”

During a presentation to the Vertical Flight Society in 2021, Bell’s program manager for GLLE outlined an approach to manage costs by using “off-the-shelf products” from the 412EPX line where possible. The overhaul of each CH-146 includes rewiring and installing some 40 wiring harnesses and power cables, a new console and “a mix of avionics from the commercial 412,” a mission management system integrated with the WESCAM MX-15 EO/IR imaging system, which was introduced on the Griffon about seven years ago, and new radios and cryptographic equipment in the nose of the aircraft, he explained. Several of the Griffon’s many antennas will be removed, replaced, or repositioned.

While some systems will be new, many of the mission kit enhancements are software related. “It’s on the mission kits and the functionality of the flight management and mission management software that we have had most of the changes and we have had to adapt during the definition phase,” explained LCol Andrew Hewitt, who headed the Director Air Requirements–Tactical Aviation team in 2021.

Even as the RCAF upgrades the CH-146, it’s also planning for what replaces the Griffon in the 2030s. Known as the next Tactical Aviation Capability Set (nTACS), the project is beginning to define the future needs of tactical aviation, in part drawing on lessons from the U.S. Army’s Future Vertical Lift program and NATO’s Next-Generation Rotorcraft Capabilities project.

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