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Canadian Sovereignty  –  Search & Rescue  –  SAR Treaty  –  May 2011

Reality Check:  Can Canada Really use a C-17 Transport to Airlift SAR
Helicopters to the Arctic to Perform Aerial Search & Rescue Missions?

Update: In early April 2014, a CH-149 Cormorant SAR helicopter was airlifted aboard an RCAF CC-177 transport for the first time. The helicopter was being flown to Lima, Peru, for an exercise. To load a CH-149 aboard the airlifter, first  that Cormorant had to be partially disassembled and mounted onto its Aircraft Transportation Kit.  In preparation for the Peru flight,  training for the CH-149 loading procedure began at 14 Wing at CFB Greenwood, Nova Scotia, in early Feb 2014.

The Cormorant was airlifted to Peru to participate in an international SAR exercise, Cooperación III. "In addition to testing air-transportablity [...] the RCAF will conduct  air expeditionary training,  search and rescue, and humanitarian aid delivery training." One might argue that the very same capabilities might be exercised by airlifting the Cormorant SAR helicopter to the Canadian Arctic. But, in the absence of  direct orders from the Government of  Canada to do so, the RCAF will simply indulge its own whims instead. [1]

Ironically, the Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue Project is in the news for allowing Northern basing to be dictated  by potential  foreign suppliers. Is the Harper Government really so intimidated by the RCAF that it prefers to foist Air Force-related policy decision diktats on foreign companies? Ottawa signed a binding Arctic SAR Treaty yet lacks the 'parts' to order the RCAF to the North.

In recent newspaper articles covering Canada commiting to the binding terms of a new Arctic search-and-rescue treaty, several statements have been quoted that require clarifying or debunking. In the latter category is a title – intentionally misleading it seems –"Arctic search and rescue agreement promises new jobs for Canada's northern residents". [2]  Another is  Foreign Affairs' assertions that "Canada is already well-placed to live up to its obligations" to perform high Arctic SAR.[3]

In the category of  needing clarification are statements,  made by Rob Huebert back in Jan 2011, about Air Force C-17 Globemaster III strategic transport aircraft. As quoted, Professor Huebert (at the University of  Calgary's Centre for Military and  Strategic Studies) implies that a CF SAR helicopter could be rushed north aboard one of four CC-177 transports to then perform its SAR mission. Obviously, Professor Huebert would be well aware that such a concept is unworkable.

Doubtless, in his original statement, Prof. Huebert was noting the Canadian Forces' fairly recent ability to rotate SAR helicopters in and out of Forward Operating Locations and other northern CF  Stations. Airlifting would be an alternative to SAR crews doing tedious (and wear-inducing) flights from their home-bases far to the south. A helicopter flown to the Arctic aboard a CC-177 would arrive partly dis-assembled and would take days to be made ready for any SAR missions.

Getting Past the Hypothetical - Using Helicopter Deployments to Afghanistan to Prove a Point

A DND news release on transporting the first CH-146 Griffons to Kandahar reveals the realities involved. Even the comparatively small CH-146 utility helicopter – a stalwart of  CF rotary-wing search-and-rescue –  must be plucked of  its rotor blades to fit into the hold of a Boeing CC-177. Once unloaded, the CH-146 must have its blades re-attached by Aircraft Structures Technicians and then the helicopter must perform a functional check flight to ensure complete airworthiness.

Things become more complicated once scaled up to the CF's dedicated SAR helicopter, the CH-149 Cormorant. The RAF has flown the British Cormorant equivalent  to Afghanistan aboard C-17s. To make the flight, the RAF Merlin HC3s had to have rotor blades removed  along with entire tail sections. Special ground handling dollies are used to load the Merlin.

Loading at RAF Brize Norton, technicians used ground handling dollies to ensure adequate clearance at the ' breakover point ' on the loading ramp. Detaching the entire tail section from a Merlin fuselage ensures that  the helicopter's airframe will  clear a C-17's upward-folding rear ramp section. Once up onto the C-17's cargo hold floor, the helicopter can be rolled forward and tied down for its long flight  –  whether to Afghanistan or  north  to the Arctic.

And that'd be the easy bit. All done in the relative comfort of a major air base like CFB Trenton. Loading would be backed up by all the specialized equipment and vehicles available at a major air base. Similar handling equipment may also be available at Iqaluit or Yellowknife. Commercial airliners may not be fortunate enough to crash in locations convenient to the Canadian Forces.

Great Circle Routes & Airliners Down in the High Arctic: Meh ... How Tough Could that Be?

The nightmare scenario for everyone is an airliner coming down in a remote part of  the High Arctic even in summer. For example, airliners flying from Europe to western North America fly over Axel Heiberg Island. The closest runway is CFS Eureka on Ellesmere Island, an austere Station with a gravel airstrip. [4]  Even if a CC-177 could land there,  hardly a spot for assembling helicopters.

Then there's the question of  timing. A hypothetical CC-177 flight from home base CFB Trenton to CFS Eureka would take 5 hours. That's just flying time, it doesn't include loading a helicopter or unloading on arrival in the Arctic (let alone reassembling the SAR aircraft). More realistically, the helicopter could be transported to Nanisivik. But, even from there, an assembled Cormorant would face a three hour flight north to reach CFS Eureka. Then how much longer to a crash site?

The short version is that, if an airliner comes down in a more remote part of the Canadian Arctic, survivors of the crash will die waiting for a southern-based Canadian Forces aircraft to respond. And yet, Foreign Affairs insists that Canada can "live up to its obligations". Smoke and mirrors.

If Reality Likes Bureaucrats Not,  Expect to be Bamboozled with BS & Offered More-of-Same

At present, Canada's Air Force is ill-equipped to perform its aerial SAR missions around major population centres in the south. Any suggestion that the CF is prepared  for High Arctic SAR is absurd. Invariably, Peter MacKay and the Chief of Air Staff will once more trumpet the need for new  Fixed-Wing Search-and-Rescue  aircraft. Intentionally lost in that clamour will be the ludicrous performance requirements dictated by basing the FWSAR aircraft 3500 km south of  where they'll need to be.

For Canadian citizens not to be deluded about the realities of High Arctic SAR and the nation's lack of preparedness, we must be able to see past the projected fantasy. That's difficult enough when Government departments value PR spin above facts. We should  be able to rely upon our journalists to provide impartial reporting when our nation has just signed on to a binding treaty obligation. But apparently we cannot. Arctic SAR challenges facing Canada remain unchanged.

The SAR problems will not go away by buying new airplanes. And pointing to the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Trenton will not save any unfortunates freezing 3500 km to the north. As long as DND is allowed to ignore the need for full-time SAR aircraft based north of  Yellowknife, Canada's treaty obligations to provide timely aerial SAR in the Arctic cannot be met. Once SAR aircraft are based  in the High Arctic,  support by big transport aircraft will doubtless be helpful. But stuffing SAR helicopters into CF CC-177 can never be the panacea suggested by the media.

[1] Obviously, it's not a question of the distances involved. The flight from CFB Greenwood via Trenton to Lima is over 6,000 km each way, almost double that of a flight to the Canadian Arctic.

[2] This title seems to be a deliberate garbling of Foreign Affairs statements on the SAR treaty and job prospects inherent in an unrelated Arctic Council agreements on oil & gas exploration.

[3] The folks at the Pearson Building probably regard Canada's three Joint Rescue Coordination Centres as akin to readiness. That no JRCC is north of the 49th Parallel probably doesn't signify.

[4] CFS Eureka's 'semi-improved' gravel airstrip is 1475m long. See: Danish Air Force Aircraft on a Mission over Canada's High Arctic and  Buffalo – Tactical Transport and Arctic Sovereignty.

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