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Arctic Sovereignty  –  Search & Rescue  –  SAR Treaty  –  July/Sept 2011

Keeping a Comparative Eye on the Neighbours — Air Greenland Shops For Replacement Helicopters for Arctic Aerial Search-and-Rescue Role
Update: Sept 2011, Air Greenland has now chosen and placed orders for a new all-weather SAR helicopter (see below). So, required replacement helicopters selected and bought in 3.5 months.

On the Monday following the signing of  the new  Arctic Council SAR Treaty , an article on the need for replacement SAR helicopters in Greenland had already appeared in a Nuuk newspaper. In contrast with Canada's northern territories, Greenland now has self-government. There is no question as to whether SAR assets can be spared for Greenland – such assets are permanently based in Nuuk. Air Greenland is the flag-carrier airline and its aircraft perform aerial SAR duties.

As the Sermitsiaq article notes, the chief concern is replacing existing Air Greenland SAR Sikorsky S-61s to ensure 'standby' readiness. SAR is a priority role for these helicopters but Air Greenland also use their S-61s on commercial flights. But the Sikorskys are reaching the end of their useful lifespan in Greenland. The first S-61s arrived in Greenland in 1965. This type – technically an S-61N MkII – was chosen to match the Danish military purchase of  Sikorsky S-61A-1s. [1]  Air Greenland currently operates two S-61Ns ( OY-HAF and OY-HAG )  but as many as five  Sikorskys have flown in Grøndlandsfly colours in the past. [2]

The Sermitsiaq article also lists the other Air Greenland SAR helicopter type –  a single Bell 212 similar to the Canadian Forces' CH-146 Griffon. Of course, these helicopters are the 'on standby' SAR fleet. In reality, the entire Air Greenland rotary-wing fleet is prepared to respond to an SAR emergency as are Danish shipboard Lynx helicopters and RDAF Challenger 604 MMAs. In one rather spectacular example of  how well  the system works, a Beaver float plane enroute to Nuuk from Baffin Island radioed a distress call. As the Beaver touched down, a photograph was taken by the Challenger's E/O camera showing Air Greenland's S-61N hovering above the water and a Lynx lifting off from a OPV in the background. That's about as good as SAR response times get!

In the Running  –  Air Greenland's Shortlist of  Potential  S-61 Replacment  SAR Helicopters

Replacement candidates for Air Greenland's aging S-61 are listed as  Sikorsky's familiar S-92 and the Eurocopter EC225 Super Puma Mk II+.  Both types are widely used  for contractor-operated SAR and offshore platform supply work. It is not our purpose to review or recommend either of the candidates. Rather, the point is that, as a private contractor, Air Greenland can move quickly and answers for its choice to nobody but its stockholders.  So long as Air Greenland can match its government's requirements for SAR, all that's needed is a clear contract of reasonable length.

The contrast with the 1965 purchase is interesting. The S-61N well-suited Grøndlandsfly (as Air Greenland then styled itself ) and the Danish military saw the advantages of incorporating some of the S-61N's more desirable features into the Sea King family. Times have changed and in few areas more dramatically than the successful procurement of  medium helicopters. [3] After much struggle, Denmark has finally fielded AW101 (akin to CH-149 Cormorants) to replace its S-61As but that machine hasn't  had great commercial success and didn't even make Air Greenland's list.

Update:  On 12 Sept 2011, Eurocopter announced an Air Greenland order for two EC225 medium helicopters to meet all-weather SAR requirements and all-weather passenger transport missions. The 11-ton EC225s will be delivered in 2014. Air Greenland already operates 12 AS350 Ecureuil.

So, if there's no longer a connection between SAR helicopters for commercial Air Greenland and their Danish military counterparts, how is any of  this relevant  to Canadians? When discussing Canada's SAR predicament, it is sometimes said (or implied ) that Canadian operating conditions are so demanding that commercial contractors would not even consider taking on the challenge. Yet, in the harshest conditions, an airline performs routine aerial  SAR  for our Arctic neighbour.

Are we to believe that SAR is less daunting in Sisimiut than it is in Comox? Is permanent basing in Nuuk somehow luxurious for a civilian flight crew while occasional detachments to Iqaluit are a hardship for military pilots? At this point, mention of the difference of scale would arise. True, Northern Canada is almost twice the size of Greenland. But that should be an argument for more effort on Canadian Arctic aerial SAR rather than less. Of course multiples of zero still equal zero.

Military-run aerial  SAR sounds like it should  be a simple and  practical solution. The Canadian military has had over 60 years to get it right. No one questions the skill of the crews – especially the SAR Techs – but would anyone judge the current state of  Canadian aerial  SAR a success? It is well past time that Ottawa looked seriously as available alternative service provider models.

A translated (and slightly edited) version of the 15 May Sermitsiaq article is reproduced below:

15 May 2011

Helikoptere trænger sig på   [ The need for new helicopters is pressing ]

The member nations of  the Arctic Council have signed a legally-binding SAR agreement. But living up  to the  'on-standby'  requirements for these rescue helicopters does not come cheap.

Procurement costs of  almost  400 M kroner ($74.25 M Canadian)  is required for two new, long- range  rescue helicopters  plus training and  the  necessary spare parts.  The contracted service provider, Air Greenland,  is willing to invest that money but it demands that the company gains a long-term search and rescue contract with the Naalakkersuisut [ the Greenland Government ].

The present Greenland search-and-rescue standby helicopter fleet consist of two aging  Sikorsky S-61 helicopters and a Nuuk-based  Bell 212 fitted with a rescue hoist and SAR equipment. These aircraft are on standby from morning until night, but that does not fulfil the new SAR agreement commitments. The SAR agreement puts rescue helicopters on the political agenda in Greenland. And it is necessary.  Air Greenland boss,  Michael Binzer, is concerned about declining readiness towards the end of  2012, when the airline's last Sikorsky S-61 is phased out.

The cost of  purchasing new rescue helicopters is so great that a long-term contract is essential. Binzer claims that  before such a contract is in place, Air Greenland cannot make the investment. A contract is a  prerequisite for Air Greenland's board  to make any decision on new helicopters.

Underlying any SAR contract must be another contract allowing Air Greenland to invest in, and operate, their rescue helicopters.  Currently, the Danish government  pays  75% of  the costs for SAR readiness, while Naalakkersuisut pays for the remaining 25%.  Binzer adds that the choice of helicopter is between the Eurocopter EC-225 (latest version of the AS332 Super Puma ) or the Sikorsky S-92 (which is a descendant of the S-70 and, for that matter, the in-service S-61). Those two candidate helicopters are the only types which can match Greenlandic range requirements.

Purchasing large rescue helciopters is not cheap. Each will cost about 175 M kroner ($32.49 M). Two aircraft complete with training and spares will cost around 390 M kroner ( $72.4 M ). To be economical for Air Greenland, the helicopters must be as flexible as possible. But the contractor must limit commercial  helicopter tasks to meet  SAR agreement 24-hour-readiness requirements.

[1] The real  benficiary was the Danish military. Their S-61A-1 combined  the shorter airframe of the US Navy's SH-3A Sea King shipboard helicopters with the S-61N's running gear 'dynamics' (rotors, blades, gearboxes, etc.) plus the commercial aircraft's enlarged water-landing sponsons.

[2] Other Air Greenland S-61Ns were OY-HAI (which crashed, Oct. 1973), OY-HAH  (to Coulson Aircrane as C-GBSF, 2009), and OY-HDO (ex LN-OSU) leased from CHC Helicopter Services AS.

[3] Beyond the difficulties and delays in procuring and successfully fielding a mid-sized military helicopter (as evidenced by the Danish AW101s and Canada's MHLH and  Maritime Helicopter Project ) there's no better example of the changes than the recent sale of Danish Sea Kings. The partly-airworthy 46-year old S-61As sold for more than they originally cost (in constant dollars).

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