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RCAF Cormorant airframe to be similar to Norwegian AW101-612; some avionics will differ

By Chris Thatcher | February 6, 2023

Estimated reading time 19 minutes, 53 seconds.

Over the next six years, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) fleet of CH-149 Cormorants will receive what is being called a “mid-life upgrade.” In reality, the overhaul program will deliver an almost brand-new search-and-rescue (SAR) helicopter.

In December, the federal government awarded contracts to Leonardo U.K. and Montreal-based CAE to upgrade systems, sensors, engines, and the airframe of the 20-year-old Cormorants to the latest standard of the AW101 helicopter, and deliver a flight simulator to a Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) training center.

The two contracts, valued at up to C$1.24 billion, cap a lengthy and, at times, difficult negotiation with Leonardo to find a solution within the government’s budget that also met RCAF requirements.

The RCAF is adding three new CH-149 helicopters to its existing fleet of 13, and the existing fleet is to receive a “mid-life upgrade.” Mike Reyno Photo

In May 2018, Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) announced it would begin sole-source talks with Leonardo for an upgrade program after the Italian company submitted an unsolicited proposal the month before to bring the current CH-149 fleet of 14 aircraft up to the same standard as the new Norwegian AW101-612 All-Weather Search-and-Rescue Helicopter. “Using this already established configuration accelerates the project considerably,” PSPC stated.

At the same time, PSPC said it would seek to expand the fleet by as many as seven new helicopters, allowing the RCAF to return the Cormorant to 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron at 8 Wing Trenton, Ontario. The squadron currently supports SAR calls with a fleet of five much smaller CH-146 Griffons — a variant of the Bell 412 — across a search area of more than 10 million square kilometers that includes the Great Lakes and Arctic Ocean.

In July 2021, however, the government conceded that it had reached an impasse in its negotiations with Leonardo. “Extensive discussion and planning determined that upgrading the CH-149 fully to the Norwegian variant of the AW101 was not a cost-effective solution to effectively meet the RCAF’s needs,” a spokesperson for National Defence said at the time. “After a year of consultation, it was determined that Leonardo couldn’t do the work at a cost that would respect the project’s overall budget.”

The initial scope of the Air Force requirements, inflation, and foreign exchange rates contributed to a cost projection the government was unwilling to pay, Maj Brett Banadyga, operation requirements manager on the Cormorant Mid-Life Upgrade (CMLU) project, acknowledged in a recent interview with Vertical.

“We couldn’t come to an agreement on where we wanted to be, so we stepped away and had a good look at our requirements,” he said.

To resolve the stalemate, the government has opted for a fleet size of 16 rather than as many as 21, and will make use of components from the current CH-149 airframes and nine VH-71 helicopters that Canada acquired for spare parts in 2011 when the U.S. presidential helicopter program was cancelled. While the VH-71 airframes are no longer airworthy, a number of components, including control surfaces, transmissions, and General Electric 3,000-horsepower CT7-8E engines, can be repurposed.

A stockpile of parts from the VH-71s, a variant of the AW101, has been used to sustain the CH-149 fleet, also know as the Dash-511, over the past 10 years.

“Anything we couldn’t use on the 511 we will now use on the 612,” said Banadyga. “One of the major parts is the engines, [which is] obviously a big expensive piece of equipment.”

To get to 16 aircraft from the current fleet of 13, Leonardo will build three new airframes at its production facility in Yeovil. (The RCAF was forced to retire one airframe when a CH-149 with 103 Search and Rescue Squadron crashed from a low hover during a training flight in March 2021. Components from that helicopter will likely be salvageable.)

Upgrades to the remaining 13 and finally assembling of certain systems on the three new aircraft will be completed by IMP Aerospace at its Nova Scotia facility near the Halifax Stanfield International Airport. Even the new builds will use some donor parts from the Dash 511 and VH-71 fleets.

Though it might seem like a Frankenstein approach, the RCAF will treat each aircraft as a “zero life” airframe, said Banadyga, a former Griffon pilot who also flew the CH-147 Chinook in Afghanistan, and served as a test pilot with the Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment before converting to the Cormorant. “I think it will be almost indistinguishable from a truly newly built aircraft.”

With 16 aircraft, the RCAF will be able to station three with 424 Squadron at 8 Wing Trenton and return the CH-146 Griffons to the care of 1 Wing Kingston, Ontario, which oversees the tactical aviation fleet.

The upgraded Cormorant fleet is expected to be fully operational by 2029 and operate into the 2040s. Mike Reyno Photo

Nine more will be spread equally among 9 Wing Gander, Newfoundland; 14 Wing Greenwood, Nova Scotia; and 19 Wing Comox, British Columbia. The remainder of the aircraft will provide training platforms and serve as “floaters” to cover operations at the four SAR squadrons when a Cormorant goes into deep maintenance.

The three new aircraft will be the first deliveries, in 2026, and will be sent to 19 Wing Comox to allow the RCAF to begin initial crew training, pilot conversion, and some operational test and evaluation of the new capability. The next deliveries, from IMP beginning in 2027, will go to 14 Wing Greenwood, then 9 Wing Gander, and finally 8 Wing Trenton. The fleet is expected to be fully operational by 2029 and operate into the 2040s.

“The advantage of having those first three be new builds is we are already adding to the fleet, so that helps cover the rest of the program,” Banadyga explained.

Cormorant operations were replaced with the Griffons at 8 Wing after the crash of a CH-149 off the coast of Nova Scotia in 2006 that killed three crew members, reducing the original fleet from 15 helicopters to 14. Banadyga acknowledged that the fleet would be spread thin if another airframe were damaged beyond repair, but he noted that “we have already experienced that [and] we have also been able to make it work. It just doesn’t give you as much back-up capability.”

Systems and capability

While the Cormorant is being upgraded to the Norwegian AW101-612 standard, it will not be an exact copy. The Norwegian “SAR Queen,” as she is known, includes a Leonardo Osprey 30 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, an RDR-1600 weather radar, a LiDAR (light detection and ranging) system, and an electro-optical sensor system.

The AESA radar had been “up for discussion” in the original plan, but the RCAF has opted to go with an enhancement of its all-weather radar — which has a “search functionality,” Banadyga said — in part to save weight and cost.

Where Norway relies on the AW101-612 for both search and rescue, the RCAF employs a fixed-wing platform with greater speed and range for the search and “the helicopter is the rescue platform,” he noted — though the Cormorant has plenty of search capability.

The Cormorant upgrade will also forgo the LiDAR system, as the RCAF is comfortable with how the five-person crew currently operate. However, it will integrate an L3 Harris WESCAM electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) system and introduce a Smith Myers ARTEMIS mobile phone detection location system that Norwegian SAR crews use “in something like 80 percent of their missions,” Banadyga said.

“It will be a big game-changer because right now we literally search with our eyes,” he added.

The integrated system will allow a flight engineer operating a sensor station to “flag a location, and the pilots could set it up as a waypoint” and slew the EO/IR camera to that position.

While the Cormorant is being upgraded to the Norwegian AW101-612 standard, it will not be an exact copy. Jamie Hunter Photo

“I have personally been on a couple of searches where we have practically been over top of what we are looking for and you can’t see it because it’s nighttime… the weather, trees, you name it.”

The RCAF will adopt the same advanced auto-pilot system as Norway, which has proven essential in making stability correctios in high winds and over rough seas, and the same improved full blade and airframe “anti-ice” system.

“[That] is something in the Canadian climate that we use all the time, and we want that [system] to work all the time,” said Banadyga.

“The basic airframe itself is going to be identical [to Norway] — engines, rotor, transmission, drivetrain, all that. And the avionics are pretty much the same,” he noted.

The avionics upgrades will include a more integrated, large-screen glass cockpit with moving map display, a terrain avoidance and warning system, synthetic vision, and the significantly improved weather radar. The navigation system will be enhanced to enable high-precision GPS approaches, and the communications package will include satellite and internal wireless comms, removing the cumbersome cords that connect SAR techs in the rear cabin.

One of the more significant improvements will be the full authority digital engine control (FADEC) system to ensure optimal performance of the GE engines. When the CH-149 entered service 20 years ago, FADEC technology was in its infancy, Banadyga noted, so the Cormorant currently operates with a hybrid engine system — a primary digital control and a back-up mechanical option.

Like the Norwegian 612, the Cormorant will mount its two hoists in separate enclosures. At present, the hoists share the same mounting space, which can potentially render both inoperable if one is damaged.

“It improves the redundancy,” said Banadyga.

One of the few differences between the two platforms will be cabin configuration. Where Norway operates with a dedicated mission station operator and a doctor, the Cormorants fly with two SAR technicians and a flight engineer, who will also operate the mission station.

Many of the mid-life upgrades, especially the avionics, were necessitated by parts obsolescence that has plagued the CH-149 for years. Basic systems like Identification, Friend or Foe (IFF) have become difficult to repair, and the current ice protection system — with its high electrical requirements — has been a challenge to maintain.

The Norwegian fleet “is showing that it requires less maintenance than the current fleet we have,” observed LCol Al Merilainen, the project director for CMLU, fixed-wing SAR, and other air mobility platforms. This ultimately means the RCAF could significantly reduce its sustainment costs.

Lessons learned over years of operating in a maritime environment have led to design changes to “help minimize the ingress of saltwater and its effect on the airframe,” added Banadyga. “That should reduce maintenance as well.”

The RCAF has had the best availability and serviceability rates among all AW101 helicopter operators, he noted, and will look to maintain that standard with the upgraded CH-149.

For Cormorant crews, who have little choice but to fly in the most “marginal weather,” the enhanced capabilities of the CMLU program will mean considerably less time spent on dangerous searches in mountains or over high seas, and greater safety and situational awareness.

Many of the mid-life upgrades, especially the avionics, were necessitated by parts obsolescence that has plagued the CH-149 for years. Mike Reyno Photo

“Having a terrain avoidance system, having synthetic vision so you can actually see what is in front of you [in] the fog . . . [having] moving maps to help with your overall mission planning — all of those tools will definitely improve our margin of safety in those difficult conditions,” Banadyga said.

RCAF still working out details for Cormorant simulator solution

By Chris Thatcher

The RCAF is still determining where to locate the CAE-built simulator for the Cormorant Mid-Life Upgrade (CMLU) program, but establishing currency training in Canada will eliminate the current practice of sending pilots to RAF Benson in the U.K.

“We are one of the few countries that still use that version of the simulator,” said Maj Brett Banadyga, operation requirements manager on the CMLU project. However, differences in the cockpit and the display technology mean the simulator “is getting a bit long in the tooth compared to what is available nowadays.”

The new fixed-base sim will be a “massive upgrade for us,” he said. “I have seen what we are going to get, and it is a huge difference.”

The Air Force has opted for a fixed-base, rather than full-motion, simulator for its larger field of view and improved graphics, but also to maintain a smaller footprint in a training center.

“There is still some limited motion through the platform and the seats themselves provide some motions cues,” said Banadyga.

The fixed-base platform will also allow SAR crews to shift from a focus on emergency procedures to more mission rehearsal involving the entire crew.

“Right now, it is quite pilot centric,” noted Banadyga. “We can bring in a flight engineer (FE), but he (or she) is stuck with helping the pilots read a checklist. Now they can be more involved in what we are doing.”

In its original plan, the RCAF had considered a full rear-crew trainer, but that proved cost prohibitive for the time being. Instead, the simulator will have a mission station to train FEs on the new sensor capabilities, and the Air Force will look “at options like using a virtual reality headset to allow the FE to have that outside view for the phases of flight where [they need] to look at a hoist or a landing area,” explained Banadyga.

Whether the simulator is placed at 19 Wing Comox or 8 Wing Trenton is still being debated. Since every SAR pilot is required to complete annual recurrency training, travel from both coasts to Trenton is the most logical step. But cost and facility space still have to be finalized, he noted.

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