17 March 2009

Enhancing east coast search and rescue

The crash of Cougar 91, carrying passengers to two of the country’s offshore oil platforms, has prompted calls for enhanced search and rescue service.

Unfortunately those calls are hampered by misunderstanding and misinformation. 

Retired Canadian Forces colonel Michel Drapeau described a forward deployment scenario today for audiences of the noon-time CBC Radio current affairs program radio Noon.  Drapeau talked about sending aircraft to St. John’s from existing SAR assets but Drapeau appeared to believe that existing SAR service is provided entirely from Nova Scotia.

Others have been calling for the creation of a new search and rescue squadron in St. John’s. This is justified on the basis that St. John’s is closest to the oil fields, among other things.

Existing SAR Resources

The eastern coast region covers the area from southern Nova Scotia to the northernmost tip of Labrador and extends eastward into the Atlantic to at least the 200 mile limit.  That huge expanse is covered currently by three squadrons, as follows:

  • 413 Transport and Rescue Squadron, Greenwood Nova Scotia, operating four CH-149 Cormorant helicopters and one CC-130 Hercules. As the primary search and rescue squadron in Nova Scotia, the squadron maintains a response capability 24 hours a day throughout the region.  Supplemented by maritime patrol squadrons.  Secondary response (back-up0 is provided by 423 Squadron Shearwater, flying CH-124 Sea King.
  • 103 Rescue Squadron, Gander Newfoundland, operating three CH-149 Cormorant helicopters.  It is responsible for providing a 24 hour response capability throughout Newfoundland and Labrador, with fixed wing support provided, as needed, from 413 Squadron and other Squadrons at Greenwood.  103 Squadron typically flies twice the national average in actual distress missions. Back-up by Cougar helicopters flying the S-92, an aircraft scheduled to enter Canadian Forces service as the CH-148 Cyclone.
  • 444 Combat Support Squadron providing 12 hour SAR support to 413 and 103 with CH-146.

Current purchase plans

C-27J_DimensionsIn early 2008, the Department of National Defence (DND) considered buying up to three more Cormorants to supplement the fleet of 15 originally purchased in 1998 for an initial price of about $600 million.  The new aircraft would replace one lost aircraft and address availability issues in some squadrons.  A shortage of spares and other issues resulting from the introduction of a new aircraft had reduced aircraft availability.

DND is currently finalising the purchase of up to 15 fixed wing search and rescue aircraft to replace the existing fleet of sic CC-115 Buffalo. The favoured aircraft appears to be the C-27 Spartan.

As well, DND is in the process of replacing the existing fleet of Hercules with the newer “J” model.

Some new ideas

Given the large geographic area as well as the terrain and climatic conditions on the east coast, the search and rescue capability needs to come from a mix of aircraft.  That’s the solution that has worked well.

Current attention is focused on St. John’s but the real weakness is the current basing which puts all the assets in the south and central with limited capability in the north.

Enhanced capability for east coast search and rescue could come from:

  • Two additional Cormorants for 103 Squadron, based in Gander, bringing the complement from three to five.  At least one aircraft could be forward deployed to Goose Bay regularly and rotated back to gander as needed. This arrangement would also give an additional aircraft which could be forward deployed as needed to St. John’s in addition to the arrangement with Cougar. 
  • Fixed wing aircraft for 103 aircraft coming from either the C-27J or, preferably,  CC-130J purchases.  If necessary more aircraft should be purchased or leased than called for in current plans.
  • Installation of in-flight refuelling on the existing Cormorant fleet. Cormorant range is currently extended somewhat by relying on the Hibernia platform for emergency refuelling.

kc130jFor a marginal increase in planned purchases, DND could provide significant added capacity. 

The in-flight refuelling tankers would be provided by the new CC-130J aircraft that would be dedicated to the SAR role.  Currently, 413 aircraft are also used as transports. 

Having dedicated in-flight refuelers would extend the range and time on station of Cormorants. Some aircraft will still have to fly longer distances but by refuelling in-flight, they will minimise the time currently taken by landing to refuel and launching again.

At the same time, these new fixed wing aircraft would not be multi-tasked as 413 Squadron is currently.  103’s new Hercules would also be available to support 413 Squadron.

Overall, this approach would enhance capability to the north where it is currently very limited.  As well, the overall east coast where the majority of daily activity takes place would have capability for longer periods, farther out to sea than is currently available.