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Rescuing SAR in Canada

By Martin Shadwick

Published on: March 27, 2023
Estimated reading time 29 minutes, 27 seconds.

Many would argue that there is a host of challenges facing Canadian national search-and-rescue policy and governance, with the CC-295 Kingfisher and CH-149 Cormorant programs serving as key examples. Here is an in-depth analysis of the issues that plague the Kingfisher and Cormorant upgrade initiatives to date.

In December 2016 and May 2018, respectively, the Trudeau government announced two major decisions affecting Canada’s fleet of search-and-rescue (SAR) aircraft. First, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) fleet of austerely-equipped CC-115 Buffalo and legacy CC-130H Hercules fixed-wing SAR aircraft would be replaced by 16 new Airbus CC-295 aircraft. Second, the RCAF’s CH-149 Cormorant helicopters would be upgraded to extend their service life, while the existing fleet would be augmented with additional rotorcraft. The precursor to this article — featured in the Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 19, No. 1 — expressed concern over a variety of issues with both the FWSAR and Cormorant Mid-Life Upgrade projects. However, a more nuanced assessment would have been prudent, given the worrisome array of challenges that now beset the CC-295 and the Cormorant upgrade initiatives.

In a scathing analysis in The Hill Times of May 30, 2022, Richard Shimooka, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, criticized successive governments for loosening FWSAR operational requirements to create competition — which allowed the C-295 to compete — and the perceived technical and operational deficiencies of Canada’s CC-295. Since winning the competition, he argued, “the C-295 has struggled to meet its promised performance. Modifications increased the aircraft’s weight and it is now underpowered for its missions.

In order to meet the Canadian requirements for SAR, Airbus included over 30 design changes to the base C-295 model for the CC-295 Kingfisher. Derek Heyes Photo

“[Along] with a number of other major deficiencies, such as . . . operation in icing, paradrop limitations, and problematic center of gravity, [this] severely impacts the aircraft’s ability to operate effectively, and even safely,” he noted. 

Shimooka concluded that “the recent announcement to push back the [CC-295’s] initial operational capability (IOC) . . . is a clear punt by [the Trudeau] government to offload these problems until a later date. While some of the deficiencies are fixable (e.g., avionics), the problems around weight, power, and icing capabilities are very likely not, as they are fundamental to the aircraft’s design. There is a significant chance that Canada will need to scrap the entire $2.9 billion purchase, and seek a different outcome.”

The reservations enumerated by Shimooka and others have inevitably raised the ire of CC-295 advocates — both governmental and non-governmental — who see the concerns as unfair or exaggerated, and the critics as disinclined to acknowledge either the merits of the Canadian SAR-specific modifications to the baseline C-295, or the shortcomings of would-be alternatives.

The RCAF CC-115 Buffalo fixed-wing search-and-rescue fleet retired from service early last year. The aircraft made its final operational flight on Jan. 15, 2022. Derek Heyes Photo

The advocates point, in particular, to a very sophisticated mission avionics suite that offers a quantum leap over the legacy CC-130H Hercules and Buffalo; extremely high levels of availability and serviceability; an outstandingly reliable powerplant; and the ready availability of spares (in part a reflection of a substantial customer base and a lengthy and ongoing production run). They note that some perceived problems have already been addressed; reject suggestions that the aircraft is underpowered (it is, admittedly, slower than the CC-130H Hercules, but faster than the now-retired Buffalo); and suggest that the so-called center of gravity “issue” has been misunderstood and misinterpreted.

The debate between the CC-295’s detractors and defenders has become distressingly polarized, but it nevertheless broaches a host of important questions and dilemmas. If the fully modified CC-295, dubbed the Kingfisher, is ultimately deemed satisfactory for the Canadian SAR role, it will vindicate the aircraft’s supporters and confound its critics.

If, on the other hand, some notable perceived weaknesses defy correction, then the implications — be they operational, political, military, legal, or financial — could prove profound. Not only would Canada need to search for a replacement, it would require modified interim arrangements for primary fixed-wing SAR. Ottawa also would need to determine the fate of the already-delivered Kingfishers. If retained on the Canadian inventory, the CC-295 might find a viable niche as a ramp-equipped, multi-purpose transport with a useful intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capability. Others might seek to recast the Kingfisher as the more modest end of a hybrid fixed-wing SAR fleet, with another aircraft type carrying the bulk of the primary SAR load.

RCAF CC-130H Hercules

Despite its shortcomings in size, range, and speed, the CC-295 Kingfisher promises to bring a new level of SAR capability to the Air Force when it replaces the much larger and faster flying CC-130H Hercules. Simon Blakesley Photo

To compound the conundrum with a third scenario, what would happen if the fully modified Kingfisher was deemed workable, but not optimal?

Delays and Ramifications

The latest chapter in the FWSAR saga was sparked on May 4, 2022, when the Department of National Defence (DND) announced that IOC of the Kingfisher has been delayed to fiscal year 2025-2026 (from summer 2022), and the aircraft’s full operational capability (FOC) has been pushed to fiscal year 2029-2030 (from summer 2024).

This represented a very substantial further delay from the schedule envisaged when the CC-295 was selected in 2016 (mid-2020 for the IOC and 2022 for the FOC). Astonishingly, the latest FOC, if realized, would be more than a quarter-century removed from Prime Minister Paul Martin’s April 2004 speech at CFB Gagetown announcing that the FWSAR project would be fast-tracked.

The DND attributed the “extended timelines” to a combination of certification and qualification, technical, and training maturity issues. Skies contributor Chris Thatcher reported in May 2022 that, in order “to meet the Canadian requirements for search-and-rescue, and as part of their initial proposal, Airbus included over 30 design changes to the base [C-295] model for the CC-295 Kingfisher.”

Canada’s new CC-295 fixed-wing search-and-rescue aircraft (foreground) with the now-retired CC-115 Buffalo. Derek Heyes Photo

These changes ranged from a “cockpit roof hatch to allow the crew quick egress” in the event of a water ditching, to a heads-up display in the cockpit, to “enclosing the main landing gear tires that protrude from the underbelly of a C-295 during flight” — in a bid to enhance range and endurance.

Such changes, according to the DND, “have resulted in a requirement for additional certifications . . . [which] cannot be expedited.” Moreover, “unforeseen technical challenges have been identified that are taking Airbus and its sub-contractors time to resolve.”

The testing of the avionics associated with the glass cockpit proposed by Airbus, for example, “uncovered problems with the crew annunciation system, which monitors aircraft systems and provides alerts,” reported Skies’ Thatcher. This issue requires correction via software and/or hardware development, which means testing and certification processes, which take time.

Finally, the DND noted that “for any new capability, aircraft operating instructions and related training materials must be developed that are reflective of the final configuration. Delays with the qualification of capabilities and the resolution of technical issues are, therefore, in turn, impacting the development of the [CC-295’s] operating instructions and courseware.”

As an interim measure to compensate the Victoria SAR region for the retirement of the CC-115 Buffalo and the delay in IOC of the Kingfisher, a detachment of two CC-130H Hercules from 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron has been redeployed from CFB Winnipeg to CFB Comox — thereby producing a decidedly far-flung squadron with SAR responsibilities at two bases, and a reduced capability to meet its air-to-air refueling and air transport mandates.

In a statement to Skies, the RCAF reported that it is “also exploring the option of using part of the CC-130J fleet to augment the CC-130H in the SAR role.” The implications for the RCAF of the significantly delayed service entry of the Kingfisher, however, go well beyond the shuffling and potential reassigning of aircraft. The delay will “disrupt” the training schedules and posting cycles of “SAR pilots and maintenance technicians preparing to transition to the new aircraft from the legacy CC-115 Buffalo and CC-130H Hercules,” reported Thatcher. It will also potentially foster morale and personnel retention challenges, and generate a massive test and evaluation workload.

Due to a number of factors, initial operational capability of the Kingfisher has been
delayed to the 2025-2026 timeframe. Stephen Fochuk Photo

The DND’s May 2022 IOC statement helped to rekindle debates that — in some cases — extend back to the earliest days of the FWSAR aircraft project. These include, but are not confined to: the procurement process and subsequent changes to that process; the perceived Air Force bias toward the Alenia C-27J (which was offered by Leonardo for the FWSAR program); the relative merits for SAR in the Canadian operating environment of the C-295, the C-27J, and other contenders; potentially revised basing options and approaches for Canada’s FWSAR aircraft (particularly in the North and near North); and whether due consideration was given to “the cost and potential benefits of providing part of the [FWSAR] solution through contracted support for elements such as aircraft, aircrew, and maintenance” — as stated in a 2010 National Research Council (NRC) study, which urged Ottawa to conduct an “in-depth analysis” of this option.

Indeed, the myriad range of issues raised by the particularly blunt NRC study could prove instructive today — particularly as one seeks to fully understand the circumstances and decisions that led to the implication-laden delays in the IOC and FOC of the CC-295.

Fundamentally, in the case of the CC-295, was there a failure — by multiple parties and actors — to appreciate fully the extent, scope, and complexity of the design changes necessary to meet Canadian SAR requirements? Or perhaps the amount of time and energy that would be required — again, by multiple actors — to fully address those issues? The DND’s May 2022 statement argues that “while the delay is unfortunate, these types of issues are not unusual given the complexity of the capability being developed.”

The delay of the Kingfisher’s entry into service will disrupt the training schedules and posting cycles of SAR pilots and maintenance technicians preparing to transition to the new aircraft. Derek Heyes Photo

Although such downplaying of problems is not unexpected in a statement of that type, and is — to some degree — accurate, it is uncomfortably close to claiming that these are mere teething problems.

The Cormorant Dilemma

The RCAF’s rotary-wing component has encountered its own trials and tribulations since the Trudeau government announced its decision to pursue the Cormorant Mid-Life Upgrade (CMLU) project via a “non-competitive process” with Leonardo, the manufacturer of the CH-149 Cormorant — which is the Canadian version of Leonardo’s AW101 helicopter. Based on the impressive Royal Norwegian Air Force AW101-612 variant of the AW101, Public Services and Procurement Canada said the CMLU project sought to “replace or upgrade current and projected obsolete systems on the Cormorant fleet”; augment the fleet size of (at the time) 14 aircraft (in part to permit the reintroduction of the Cormorant to CFB Trenton, which very briefly operated the type); and procure a rotary-wing SAR simulator.

In a follow-on statement, a DND spokesperson noted that the CMLU “will extend rotary-wing SAR services to at least 2040” by upgrading the existing helicopters and by augmenting the current fleet with up to seven additional helicopters. A Leonardo press release from May 2018 posited that the undertaking would “provide a very low risk solution” to Canada’s future requirements for rotary-wing SAR — an ironic statement given the events that have since transpired.

The Cormorant has served Canada well for SAR, but it is in need of an upgrade to bring it up to today’s standards. Mike Reyno Photo

Canada’s then-Defence Minister, Harjit S. Sajjan, confirmed in August 2019 that the Cormorant fleet would be upgraded “to extend its life to at least 2042,” but noted, in an apparent downward shift, that the existing fleet would be bolstered by “at least two additional helicopters” — rather than seven. A 2019 DND document mapped out a very aggressive timeline for the CMLU project, including the first delivery of an upgraded Cormorant by 2022 and IOC in 2024. Key elements of the CMLU included upgraded flight management, communications, navigation, and safety capabilities; the introduction of modern SAR mission sensors; upgraded engines; maintainability and reliability enhancements; an extended service life; and improved in-cabin wireless communications.

Unfortunately — or, perhaps inevitably, given the pitfalls and vagaries of defense procurement in Canada — negotiations for the CMLU project were paused in July 2021 following Ottawa’s determination that Leonardo “could not do the work at a cost that would respect the project’s overall budget.”

The DND noted that the Cormorant had been in service for almost two decades and that, consequently, some “of the onboard systems are . . . becoming obsolete and increasingly difficult to support, including engines. Additionally, the helicopter does not have the required avionics to meet new regulatory standards.”

The Cormorant fleet will receive a mid-life upgrade over the next six years, which will deliver an almost brand-new SAR helicopter. Mike Reyno Photo

The Department was therefore “working to see what can be done to extend the life” of the Cormorant fleet. One option was a life-extension of the existing fleet of helicopters — which was reduced from 14 to 13 in March 2022 following a crash — to meet regulatory requirements and replace obsolete parts.

Assistant Deputy Minister (Materiel) Troy Crosby noted that the DND and RCAF would “examine what other options could be available for the [Cormorant] helicopters. First and foremost, we will ensure the helicopters remain capable and available. But the mid-life upgrade project had sought to do more than that and we’ll have to look at what we can achieve through various options.”

In a Twitter statement on June 13, 2022, Leonardo reiterated that it “remains fully engaged with the Canadian government in relation to the upgrade” of its CH-149 Cormorant SAR fleet. The manufacturer added that the CMLU project “will address obsolescence issues, ensure compliance with emerging airspace requirements, extend the life expectancy of the fleet to 2042+, and provide the option to augment the fleet, enabling the return of Cormorant helicopters” to the main operating base at CFB Trenton.

The RCAF initially acquired 15 CH-149 Cormorants for SAR operations. No upgrades have been made to the airframe since it was first introduced in October 2001. Mike Reyno Photo

Somewhat curiously — given the lack of explicit references to enhancements and modifications unrelated to obsolescence issues and emerging airspace requirements — the statement posited that “the CMLU project will transition Canada’s [AW101/CH-149 Cormorant] fleet to the latest standard currently being delivered for SAR in Norway, and arguably the best search-and-rescue helicopter in the world.”

At the time of writing, where the post-pause CMLU discussions between Ottawa and Leonardo would lead remained unclear. Sufficient additional funding to pursue CMLU as originally envisaged appeared unlikely, even if Ottawa is now modestly more amenable to increased defense spending. [See Chris Thatcher’s Cormorant Mid-Life Upgrade update for the latest information on the project.]

In the absence of additional funding for CMLU, a comprehensive and fully integrated AW101-612-inspired mission avionics suite would be a nonstarter. Thoughtful observers, though, would be left to ponder how Norway, but not Canada, can afford “arguably the best search-and-rescue helicopter in the world.”

As part of the mid-life upgrade, the Cormorant will mount its two hoists in separate enclosures. Mike Reyno Photo

A credible augmentation of the Cormorant fleet — partly to replace the ill-suited CH-146 Griffons at CFB Trenton, partly to cover for Cormorants undergoing CMLU upgrades, and partly to provide a modest number of maintenance “floaters” and a hedge against future attrition — remains extremely important, but also extremely problematic.

Indeed, the accident involving Cormorant 149903 at CFB Gander on March 10, 2022, has reduced the active Cormorant fleet to only 13 aircraft, and further underscored a fleet size dilemma extending back to the days of the CH-113/CH-113A Labrador. Another Cormorant, of course, was lost in a fatal crash in July 2006.

Instead of “at least two additional aircraft,” the current Cormorant fleet should be reinforced by at least three — but preferably four, or even five — additional aircraft.

A more modest number would suffice if Ottawa opted to forgo replacing the Griffons at CFB Trenton with the Cormorant. But the Griffon — even if upgraded under the broader Griffon Limited Life Extension project and additionally provided with some SAR-specific enhancements — is no Cormorant.

By adding new Cormorants to the RCAF’s existing CH-149 fleet, the type will be able to return to 424 Squadron — which currently supports SAR calls with five CH-146 Griffon helicopters, like the one pictured. Combat Camera Photo

A potential alternative, if one is prepared to embrace niche privatization, would be to privatize the SAR operation in Gander — with an appropriate helicopter type to be determined — and shift its Cormorants to CFB Trenton as Griffon replacements.

A Way Forward?

While the various relevant parties attend to the woes of the Kingfisher and CMLU projects, we would do well to remember that “broader issues of SAR policy and SAR governance remain to be tackled — and tackled on a holistic, priority basis,” as I stated in the aforementioned precursor to this article.

One could posit that we still lack an up-to-date, integrated, and comprehensive national SAR policy; that SAR in Canada suffers from a lack of accountability; that there remains a lack of coordination between the strategic level and the operational components of the national SAR system; that meaningful levels of service remain ill-defined or non-existent; that the concept of “lead minister” for SAR has effectively disappeared; and that the de facto loss of the National Search and Rescue Secretariat has had harmful consequences. Any independent review and analysis of the problems encountered by the Kingfisher and CMLU projects should not fail to take such broader weaknesses and defects into account.

Problems with the Kingfisher and the Cormorant also have the potential — the conceivably very messy and controversial potential — to energize anew the decades-old debate over stripping primary fixed-wing and rotary-wing SAR from DND and the Canadian Forces and transferring it to the private sector by emboldening those who seek full privatization. It is also conceivable, but distressing, that some heretofore staunch supporters of the military’s retention of primary SAR have now become so frustrated with SAR equipment deficiencies; the delays in fielding the FWSAR aircraft and upgraded (and augmented) Cormorants; the polarized debates and questionable decision-making; and broader issues of Canadian national SAR policy and governance, that they may now be more willing to ponder the increased niche privatization of SAR in Canada.

While issues with the Kingfisher and CMLU projects persist, broader issues of SAR policy and SAR governance in Canada remain to be tackled. Heath Moffatt Photo

Whether this would do SAR, the military, or the country any favors remains very far from clear. To what extent a privatized approach to SAR could have avoided, or reduced, the problems associated with the Kingfisher and the Cormorant upgrade is debatable, but even a perception that it could have might prove challenging to dislodge.

This article, which has been edited and condensed, was originally published in the Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 22, No. 4, Fall 2022.

Join the Conversation


  1. Why is it every time the government of Canada gets involved we have issues? If it’s not these planes and helicopters it’s navy’s helicopters, it’s the ships of all sorts, it’s submarines that billions of dollars spent but all are actually no good or functional. Fighters that took 10 years to buy that were never to be purchased and yet after billions on old f-18s here we are. The list goes on and on, but nobody says the government screwed up. Tax payers are again on the hook for an inept government.

    Is the Kingfisher used in the same roll in other countries? What is everyone else using? We get the cheapest bid at the time, then change the parameters and ends up costing more in the long run. I think our defense minister needs to answer some questions instead of bragging how good the government is doing.

  2. Privatize the Gander operation so that you can station Cormorants in Trenton? This is obviously a political move because it is much more important to rescue Lake Ontario recreational boaters in the summertime than it is to support fishermen, mariners and oil workers in the brutal cold waters of the North Atlantic.

  3. Because the Federal government has no idea how to spend Canadian taxpayers money. It just feels like Canada is always behind when it comes to our Armed forces. We should not have to rely on the United States to always defend us, (no offence to the Americans) we need to be self sufficient in our funding. The federal government, whether Liberal or Conservative needs to have someone in office that can run a budget properly and not spend everything at the end of the fiscal year.

  4. Ron’s comment really resonates. I spent a decade in the RCAF flying an aircraft my father flew on as a crew member. This was back in the cold war era when we often were in close proximity to the Russians. However, it didn’t seem to motivate our political element to purchase up to date equipment. The budget for flying and purchasing updated equipment always took an inordinate length of time. Our entire evaluation and procurement methodology seems to be designed to encourage delay, then more delay through changes. It is a sad state of affairs that the party in power does not want to address. I suggest our purchasing process may be intentionally design to kick the can down the road. As was pointed out, it invariably costs us more.

  5. As a 17 year SAR Sqn / CH 113 Crew member I can attest to how our resources have become aged and outdated. Understandably a Military Commander, with very limited funding, would rather see his combat capability increased rather than SAR.
    The RCAF have a commitment to provide SAR capability under ICAO regulations for civilian aircraft. Is it practical to be thinking a fractured civilian SAR might be the answer???

  6. Twin Otter, Buffalo, Labrador were excellent Aircraft in their time. Seems Liberals know too little and cant resource good advice. Well at least we got the RC back in the AF. Ole saying “You get the Government you Deserve”

  7. These are very real issues, and we all know military procurement is an absolute joke, but civilian run SAR is not the answer. Who do they and the JRCCs turn to when it’s a complex rescue requiring skills beyond civilian SAR or very dangerous? SAR techs. The simple answer that should squash that discussion is 2 words: unlimited liability. SAR techs have the highest injury rate in the CAF because of the risk involved in many of these rescues, many of these missions would simply not get done and many Canadian lives lost if it wasn’t for SAR techs taking a risk “without regard” so “that others may live”.

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