HMCS St. John’s on manoeuvres during Operation REASSURANCE

Originally published with RUSI(NS)


The popular RUSI(NS) Distinguished Speaker series continued on 4 October 2017 with a presentation by Commander Sheldon Gillis. The charismatic Cdr Gillis gave an illuminating talk to an appreciative audience on the activities of Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) St. John’s whilst he captained the Halifax-class frigate last spring on deployment as the Royal Canadian Navy’s (RCN) contribution to Operation REASSURANCE.

From 9 January to 14 July 14, 2017, Cdr Gillis and his ship’s company of 239 sailors and RCAF personnel conducted Roto 6 (sixth rotation) in support of Op REASSURANCE, taking on the mission from HMCS Charlottetown.  HMCS St. John’s conducted operations in the central portion of the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, off of Syria, and near Iceland, before returning to their home port of Halifax. According to the commander, the post-Halifax-class Modernization/Frigate Life Extension (HCM/FELIX) ship and embarked Sea King helicopter performed admirably.  In his opinion, the expenditure of billions of dollars on upgrading the frigates has proven itself in theatre.  He is looking forward to the next technological and operational leaps forward when the RCAF’s new Cyclone maritime helicopter becomes available for operations.

The commander is a long serving naval officer whose first major deployment was in HMCS Protecteur when she sailed in 1990 on Operation FRICTION to the Persian Gulf.  Cdr Gillis has observed first-hand the sea changes of world naval power.  To him, what was old is now new again.  In the late 2000s, Russia was flush with revenue from oil sales.  Portions of this windfall have gone to modernizing and beefing up an ailing Russian Fleet.  While his frigate was deployed, a Russian carrier conducted air operations off of Syria, Russian surface ships and a brand new Kilo-class submarine were preparing to fire cruise missiles into Syria, and numerous Russian ‘research’ vessels were in the Mediterranean. For 21 days, he and his company kept constant surveillance on the Kilo-class submarine whilst she operated off the coast of Syria.  As he described it, he was conducting old school Cold War symmetric anti-submarine operations.  These skill sets used to be the raison d’être of the RCN and one of its main foci.  Thankfully, the ship was able to pivot back to this vital role.  Apparently the modernized frigates and younger sailors can ably handle the ‘novel’ task of Russian sub-hunting that was second nature to sailors of a past generation.

Other novel dealings for the Canadian frigate were the numerous ship-to-ship interactions with the Russians.  There was quite a bit of interest in St John’s  whilst they spent 21 days in the Black Sea conducting port visits and patrols.  Whilst they were shadowing the Kilo-class submarine off of Syria, there were at least 10 to 12 Russian surface ships in the same small area of water space. Although both navies act professionally, they each realize that everyone is keeping a wary eye on each other.  There was a significant shift in naval operating dynamics where the normal exercise safety factors did not exist.  Most navy personnel are used to the somewhat artificial exercise parameters and haven’t been exposed to real world symmetrical threats.  As Cdr Gillis stressed, the Russians are not our enemy but they are worth keeping more of an eye on in the future.

Touching on the future course of the RCN, Cdr Gillis opined that although his frigate, helicopter and company acquit themselves well with respect to the tasks assigned to them, it is vital that the RCN pushes forward with the Canadian Surface Combatant project.  Other world navies such as Russia and China are boosting their naval inventories and sea presence.  In order to keep up, Canada needs to keep re-investing in our own sea going capabilities to deal with the resurging symmetric abilities and/or threats.  In addition, the RCN’s ‘to do’ list is not shrinking but expanding year upon year.  A nation’s naval power is as important in today’s world as it has ever been.

RUSI(NS) members and invited guests enjoyed Cdr Gillis’s frank and open presentation and follow on discussion of HMCS St. John’s latest European deployment.  It was quite evident that he was proud to have commanded a RCN warship.  For the audience present, it was a rare opportunity to hear from a senior naval officer who had been out ‘doing the business’.

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Preserver alongside Her Majesty’s Canadian Dockyard Halifax, 28 July 2017, ready to be towed to the ship breaker. Photo credit, Blair Gilmore, RUSI(NS)

The Sun Dips on PRESERVER, Last of the Protecteur-Class AOR

Originally published with RUSI(NS), Bourque Newswatch, and Ottawa Citizen

August 2, 2017, marked the end of an era for the Canadian built Protecteur-class AOR (Auxiliary Oiler, Replenishment) when Preserver transfers from the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) to her new owners, Marine Recyling Corporation. Navy tugs will tow the vessel one last time a short distance off of her berth at Her Majesty’s Canadian Dockyard Halifax, from where she will then be transferred to a civilian tug and towed to a special facility in Sydney, Cape Breton for breaking and recycling.

As I toured the flats taking part in the last official tour of the vessel, I reflected on the bygone era represented by the ship and her predecessor, Protecteur. Standing on top of the bridge next to the Officer of the Watch’s station by the Engine Room speaking tube, I could envision the numerous ‘sundowners’ that area had witnessed. How many times had the Captain and his ship’s officers spent a few quiet contemplative minutes up in this spot? How peaceful it would have been on some far off ocean, sipping a beer and perhaps indulging with a cigar, quietly contemplating life at sea as the fiery orb sank once again into the abyss. As we traveled through the stripped out 555 foot long ship, I wondered how many Duty Roundsmen had followed these paths? How many thousands of times had the decks been scrubbed or the brass fittings polished? How many dignified cocktail gatherings, ‘channel fever’ parties, baptisms, summary trials, mess dinners, RPC (Request the Pleasure of your Company), and countless other functions were held in the Officers’ Wardroom, Chief & POs’ Mess, Hangar and the Main Cave? What were the number of sea ditties floating about the fleet generated from decades of good natured Preserver sailor’s high jinx? The old ship’s motto was ‘Heart of the Fleet’ but it was the continuous presence of thousands of RCN sailors serving, living and toiling aboard her over all those decades that brought life to inanimate steel. Their salty souls permeate the bulkheads and deck plates.

But the old lady’s time has come, and she is scheduled meet her fate at the breaking yard. Back on July 30, 1970, when she was put into commission at the New Brunswick Saint John Shipbuilding yard, it was still common for ships to be powered by steam, and she ended up as the last boiler powered vessel in the RCN. In addition, many materials used in her construction are long gone from today’s modern ships. Miles of PCB coated copper wiring run through her hull. Much of her interior surface is covered with the old ubiquitous Navy red lead paint. Marine Recycling will have a challenge to safely removing all those toxic substances. Helping to ensure their proper disposal, our RCN tour guide explained that the Department of National Defence will continue to play a watchdog role until the last fifteen feet of the ship is left. The building and ultimate breaking of Preserver represents a true ‘cradle to grave’ Canadian shipbuilding process.

Preserver faithfully functioned as a vital force multiplier for the RCN. But as the world moved forward, parts for the old ship became scarce and tightening environmental regulations would have kept the single hulled fueling vessel out of most ports. But Preserver’s usefulness has not entirely waned as she will perform one last useful task for the Navy. The military always ends up in possession of material and equipment that has become obsolete or too expensive to dispose of. Much of this material ends up warehoused to collect dust. There is a unique item still onboard the ship that epitomizes this dilemma of how to dispose of items that have outlived their usefulness, namely the Wardroom piano. Years ago, an upright piano was presented to the ship’s officers as a gift. It is said to have taken four days of work pulling up hatches and making openings to bring it to its home onboard. The time and effort to remove this unique musical instrument is now not worth the bother. So as is common in the military recycling business, the new owners will receive a ship full of extra bits and pieces of military surplus including a piano. Wouldn’t that be a rare find a few months from now on EBay?

There is always a touch of sadness and nostalgia when you say good-bye to a ship, especially when it is the last of her type. The countless eyes who have witnessed innumerable sunrises and sunsets from her decks and stared across the thousands of miles of endless oceans are long gone. All that is left is for the graceful old lady to take her final voyage into the setting sun.

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Members of the Royal Canadian Navy, US Navy and Sierra Leone Navy watch as HMCS Moncton comes alongside HMCS Summerside in Freetown, Sierra Leone during Obangame Express on March 19, 2017.
Photo: MCpl Pat Blanchard, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

RCN innovation furthers Canadian diplomacy in West Africa

Recently, I had the pleasure to participate in a ‘round table’ group discussion regarding the Royal Canadian Navy’s (RCN) spring 2017 deployment to West Africa, NEPTUNE TRIDENT 17-01. The Commanding Officers of the participating vessels, Lieutenant-Commanders (LCdr) Nicole Robichaud of Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Moncton¸ and Paul Smith of HMCS Summerside, plus the head RCN planner, Commander (Cdr) David Finch, spoke at length about the tremendous success of the endeavor.

Participants of the exercise included the two Kingston-class patrol ships, often known as Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels (MCDV); a RCN Maritime Tactical Operations Group detachment (specialists in boarding); and ships and personnel from Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, France and the US. The RCN has produced numerous descriptive articles about the deployment, some of which can be accessed at:

The continent of Africa has significant strategic importance for Canada in relation to future security, humanitarian and trade missions. The RCN has participated in similar deployments in North and East African waters but this was a first for these West African countries. Keeping with the tradition of Canadian ingenuity, the RCN planners came up with an innovative solution to building a positive presence in the region.

Lieutenant-Commander Paul Smith, Commanding Officer of HMCS Summerside talks to students at the all-girl Saint Joseph’s Primary School in Freetown, Sierra Leone during Neptune Trident 17-01 on March 23, 2017.
Photo: MCpl Pat Blanchard, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

To begin with, why was a vessel designed to operate locally be sent all the way across the Atlantic? These 55 metre coastal vessels have been pressed into service on voyages well past their original design. They have been given ice ratings and regularly sail in Canada’s Arctic Ocean. They frequently sail the East and West Caribbean on Operation CARIBBE drug enforcement patrols. They have been across ‘the Pond’ (familiar navy name for the Atlantic) participating in NATO European exercises. Put into perspective, these ships are not much smaller than the 62.5 meter Flower-class RCN corvettes that were on Second World War convoy duty, so it is not that much of a stretch to have them sail so far afield. Thankfully, with today’s technology, alternate southern routing and forecasting tools, a Kingston captain can do a proper risk assessment before attempting the crossing. According to the Commanding Officers, the ships handled the voyage well. The only significant maintenance issues centered on excessive African heat as RCN ships are primarily designed for cooler northern climates.

Once the ships voyaged across the Atlantic, there were several justifications that led to their being the perfect platforms for the mission. There are challenges inherent to operating in less-than-optimal African ports. Kingstons, with their smaller size and crew complement, alleviate many of the practical issues that would have prevented the efficient use of a larger ship such as a Halifax-class frigate. Many of the African ports would not have been able to accommodate a larger vessel with berthing, fuel or supplies. Kingstons generally do not need tug assistance. While alongside, a higher percentage of personnel can participate in community relation events. Lastly, expenditures on Kingstons come in at approximately $5000 a day for operating costs vice $35000 a day for a frigate. As LCdr Robichaud stated, Kingstons are excellent for this type of deployment.

Lieutenant-Commander Nicole Robichaud, Commanding Officer of HMCS Moncton speaks to guests onboard the ship in Freetown, Sierra Leone during Obangame Express on March 20, 2017.
Photo: MCpl Pat Blanchard, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

As the RCN officers assembled at the round table explained, there were strong psychological components to their mission that helped contribute to their resounding success. For centuries, the world’s navies acted as their country’s diplomats. A ‘ship of the line’ would appear at a port, drop anchor and send a delegation ashore to make contact with the local dignitaries. Fancy receptions would be held at the local government houses with reciprocating parties held onboard the vessels. The practice continues to this day. For example, as part of Canada Day 150 celebrations, several US Navy ships including the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D Eisenhower were present in Halifax, Nova Scotia. One of the hottest tickets in town was to be invited to Eisenhower’s reception party. The Kingstons were used in a similar fashion during their port visits as there were plenty of opportunities for parties, hands-on training and day sails for guests. Canadian embassy staff remarked that more ‘diplomacy’ happened over these get-togethers than what they could accomplish in months.

Another point favouring the use of the Kingstons was the fact that they are not overwhelming ‘weapons of war.’ Many of the African navies are in the nascent stages of development. During joint training, they were still mastering basic seamanship and security skills. Boarding exercises are easier to accomplish with a smaller vessel. The guest navy personnel were happy with hands-on firing of the Kingstons’ .50 caliber machine guns with no need to learn about missiles or large naval guns. The African navies have limited resources, and if you don’t take an air of superiority, then they can relate and be greatly cooperative.

Another aspect to the deployment that is a result of the Canadian Armed Force’s (CAF) push for diversity was the coincidence of LCdr Smith being black with matriarchal ties going to Freetown, Sierra Leone, and LCdr Robichaud being a woman going to Liberia whose president is the first elected female head of a state of Africa. Cdr Finch joked that he couldn’t have planned the circumstances better. It is a testament to the dedicated efforts of the RCN for inclusivity that these types of situations will become normal, and the focus is on the person and the mission, not their race or gender.

This led into an important point that LCdr Smith wanted to stress. The Canadian flag and reputation were very powerful in that part of the world. Unlike the Americans and French who also participated in the exercise, the RCN was perceived to have no ‘history’ or ulterior motives. Canadians are seen as helpers wanting to do the right thing regardless of who you are. This built-in good will helped the RCN accomplish its outreach goal to such a point that next year’s mission has already been approved.

Members of the Christian Young Adult Fellowship of Sierra Leone go for a ride aboard a rigid hulled inflatable boat during a visit of HMCS Summerside to Freetown, Sierra Leone during Neptune Trident 17-01 on March 22, 2017.
Photo: MCpl Pat Blanchard, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

I asked Cdr Finch if there was any downside to this RCN success story. He replied that the only negative was they could not get to all the nations that asked for the Canadians. African nations want to be part of the wider world and are hungry for training and expertise to be able to secure their maritime interests. While Summerside and Moncton were present in the area, illegal fishing fleets kept their distance. With training, local navies will be able to build their own ‘Recognized Maritime Picture’ (plot of the situation at sea) to first document these criminals and then move towards interdiction and prosecution. Furthering that, the RCN is considering demonstrating during next year’s deployment of Kingston-class ships a number of ‘maritime domain awareness’ capabilities that would progress maritime security capacity building within the Gulf of Guinea. The concept of ‘like’ methods and training used to train ‘like’ capabilities coupled with affordable technology appears to be paying dividends.

The CAF is renowned for doing more with less. If there is a job needing doing, the men and women of the Forces will find a way of doing it with what they have. The Kingston-class ships not only accomplished this latest mission admirably but it was done cost effectively. Even though the recently released government’s Defence Policy contained no mention of replacing these 1990s era vessels, I predict that these workhorses of the RCN will be called upon for years to come. They are proving their worth, and a serious conversation is needed to either extend their lifespan or to start a replacement program.

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Liberals Pledge to have the Backs of our Military Members

This past Friday, June 9, 2017, the Honourable Scott Brison, Member of Parliament for Kings-Hants, NS and President of the Treasury Board addressed members of the military and various stakeholders at the CFB Halifax Military Family Resources Center (MFRC). The Liberal’s long awaited Canada’s Defence Policy was unveiled to the public last week and the government is sending its representatives out to spread the news.

The CFB Halifax MFRC was a fitting backdrop for Mr. Brison’s speech as it concerned the ‘softer’ personnel-oriented portions of the Liberal’s Strong, Secure, Engaged themed Defence Policy. He described how they are providing an extra $147 million to MFRCs across the country to boost support to military families. He briefly spoke about how the government has laid out their 20 year plan with boosted funding through to 2026-2027. Plus he described the lengthy and thorough process of consultation with Canadians and allies. The government tried to dovetail the wishes of our citizens with what our defence partners were doing. It has been a lengthy process and the government realizes that the men and women in uniform are the heart of the organization.

After the preamble, Mr. Brison spoke on some specifics of the new policy which should alleviate the stress and angst of our military members. He stated that the transition process for our military members has not had a good track record. Men and women who have taken off the uniform have felt abandoned, victimized and bereft of benefits. There is a moral responsibility to look after those people who had the country’s back and Mr. Brison pledged that his government will do a better job in the future.

To that end, as part of the new Canada’s Defence Policy, there is a section dedicated to Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel and their families. Entitled, Well-Supported, Diverse, Resilient People and Families, the full text of the document can be found here.  Mr. Brison emphasized four key points:

  • A Personnel Administrative branch will be created whose purpose will be to help military personnel throughout their career with the end goal of easing transition back to civilian life.
  • The medical services of the CAF will be augmented by 200 personnel which will include experts in transition care. Injured military members with have definitive care in place before release.
  • A new CAF Transition Group of 1200 personnel will be created. The composition will be 400 staff who will be working with 800 ill and injured military personnel. The goal will be to either get these personnel well enough to return to duty or to successfully transition them to civilian life.
  • The last major initiative announced was that all benefits, such as pension payments, will be in place before a member is released.

This news and these new policies could have come sooner with regards to my own difficult transition to civilian life. I was given three weeks notice of my departure from the military and had little time to prepare. I had some loose plans put together for life after the Regular Force that involved the Reserves but those were dashed when I ‘accidentally’ discovered I wasn’t allowed to reapply for at least five years. The Navy is still holding back a quarter of my last pay cheque due to auditing purposes. Thankfully, I wasn’t waiting on a pension check because I doubt that would have started without a lengthy delay. Heck, even the CAF pin and Wardroom departure gifts I was promised have not even arrived after six months. Hopefully, current CAF members from now on can be spared some of the hardship that seems so common when the uniform is taken off for the last time.

There are plenty of new policy initiatives such as the pay raises, deployment income tax relief, family support measures, etc. that should increase the general morale and welfare of CAF members. Although there was no timeline given by Mr. Brison for all the new programs, the attendees and myself were cautiously optimistic that the government will do the right thing by the men and women who stand on guard for thee.

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Fall of 2003 Dive Rescue Team Logo – Credit to Bob McCauley


Good news for the CCG Dive Rescue Team. Reports from my Coast Guard contacts say that the decision to axe the team has been rescinded. There was much rejoicing! Making some noise seems to have worked plus last week the unit saved the lives of 2 adults and 5 children who were clinging to their capsized vessel. Penetrating the wreck wasn’t necessary but they could have gone inside if needed. Hopefully the team’s stay of execution lasts for awhile.


Ardesco ab Venter

The title, loosely translated from Latin, means Fire from the Belly. This was the motto of our 2003 Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) Dive Rescue training class while we struggled through the labours Tim, John and the other trainers subjected us to in the pool, at the dock shed in Steveston village, Richmond and at the Kitsilano Coast Guard station (CGS). We were the second of two groups trained that year to become members of a newly formed, elite, one of a kind in Canada Dive Rescue team destined to operate out of the CCG Hovercraft station based at Sea Island, Richmond, BC.

Reminiscent of other past Liberal and Conservative government decisions to cut CCG programs like the original dive rescue team, manned lighthouses and the Kitsilano CGS, Trudeau’s government recently announced their intention to axe the current Dive Rescue team and reallocate the $500,000/year savings and personnel to other CCG areas. Search and Rescue (SAR) experts, industry, the public and politicians are lining up against this short-sighted decision while the government plays a bait and switch policy saying they are increasing total CCG funding. As an aside, the CCG has been chronically underfunded for decades and is in woeful shape.

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While determining budgets and public policy, it is difficult for politicians to determine the correct programs and facilities to fund and support. Similar to shutting down a fire hall, you have an emotional public (who votes you in) on one side and bean counters (purveyors of fiscal reality) with hard statistics on the other. In a case of absurdum, you don’t want to over-react to a perceived issue like Homer Simpson and his ill-conceived Bear Patrol.

I would like to present arguments that are both emotional and logical in favour of keeping the Dive Rescue unit intact.

Working as a first responder is a calling, not a labour. I had my first taste of Search and Rescue (SAR) as a young man posted to CFB Summerside, PEI. The waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence were particularly treacherous mid-December 1990 and numerous sailors from Le Bout de Ligne, Nadine, Straits Pride II and a couple of foreign cargo vessels lost their lives in the three day storm. CCG ships, military aircraft, commercial and fishing vessels conducted a multi-day search. I volunteered to fly in one of the 413 Transport and Rescue Squadron Buffalos as a spotter. Conditions were atrocious in the rear of a bucking Buffalo. The aircraft was being buffeted by 70 knot winds while we flew 500 feet over 70 foot high waves. Reports from a CCG ship stated that sea conditions were so bad that lifeboat survivors next to the ship couldn’t be brought onboard before succumbing to the elements. Most sane individuals run away from conditions like these while SAR personalities see it as an opportunity to deter Death’s collection of souls for that day. I didn’t see a damn thing in the back of that Buffalo in all the hours patrolling back and forth between PEI and Newfoundland but I imagined that those doomed sailors died knowing that we at least tried. The collective SAR effort saved none of the three Le Bout de Ligne sailors, two of the ten Nadine sailors and three of the six Straits Pride II sailors that night. Divers from CCG Ship G.C. Gorton recovered one of the victims from the wreck before it sank. I am sure the families of the rescued and recovered sailors were not thinking of the cost of the efforts put towards finding their loved ones.

CCGS Sea Island Dive Rescue Unit Crest

Fast forward 13 years and I was a newly trained Rescue Specialist with the CCG Dive Rescue Unit. We were pumped up after an intensive seven week training course (last I heard it is now a thirteen week course) and eager to put our life saving skills to use. Media attention was high, we were giving tours, interviews and receiving plenty of favourable press coverage. I did not have a long wait before my first major incident as just a few shifts into my new career, my team responded to reports of a security van in the water at the Vancouver Centerm Pier. The call ran like clockwork. We arrived on scene well within our rescue window, fire trucks were lighting up the area where they said the van had hit the water and we had a diver deployed within minutes. All good except there was no van, no occupants and no rescue. I was the third diver in the water when word came down that our Captain had discovered evidence (scratches on the pier’s bull rail) that the van was probably at the stern of the hovercraft rather than the bow where we had been directed to search. Through no fault of their own, the land based emergency services had pointed us in the wrong direction and we were well past rescuing a husband and father of two young children. Disbanding the Dive Rescue unit will severely diminish inter-agency cooperation and the knowledge base between the CCG, the military and civilian emergency services. Over fourteen years of hard fought expertise is in danger of being lost if this decision goes through. The grown children of that deceased security guard will not be happy that lessons from their father’s death will be forgotten.

Unimaginative bean counters and CCG brass have been whittling away at the Sea Island dive team for decades citing cost as a major issue. I understand that sometimes you have to equate a dollars and cents figure to how many lives have been or may be saved by a particular organization. In my three plus years with the Dive Rescue unit, I saved one life while diving. I also participated in many dive incidents where we were too late. So if you’re looking for bang for your buck, Dive Rescue is a long shot. But if you’re looking at discontinuing the dive capabilities, then who is going to dive on the 10 to 12 vehicles per year that end up in the Lower Mainland waters to check for occupants? Who is going to respond to distressed divers at Whytecliff Park, or the artificial reefs off Vancouver Island and in Howe Sound? Who is going to check overturned vessels or crashed aircraft for survivors? These are just stats of my participation let alone the decade’s worth of SAR calls since I left the unit. Military SAR Technicians, police and fire units are not equipped, or do not have the expertise to respond adequately or timely to the incidents that routinely are attended to by the Dive Rescue Unit. The closest divers who could respond to a vehicle in the water along the Fraser would be the SAR Techs of 442 Squadron based out of Comox on Vancouver Island. There will be gaps and people will needlessly die as impotent rescuers standby.

The plan is to keep the hovercraft and a rescue team operational at Sea Island. They will reduce the five person Rescue Specialist team from five down to probably two. This will drastically reduce the value added capabilities of the response team. During my time at the station, only approximately 10% of the SAR calls involved diving with the rest being a grab bag mix of tracking down ELT/EPIRB signals, vessels in distress, transferring summer sun worshipper patients from Wreck Beach, looking for persons floating in the water, etc. In addition we did buoy tending (visited Sand Heads Light a lot), pollution response (recovered discarded buoy batteries tossed in the water by previous CCG technicians), Community outreach (public tours and numerous media clips), marine patrols (summer standby for Vancouver’s Celebration of Light fireworks shows) assisting university and Department of Fishery scientists, etc. It never hurt to have a few extra trained bodies on hand as spotters, helpers or extra muscle especially for the more involved SAR incidents or day to day CG activities.

The nightmare scenario and the reason for hovercraft stationed near Vancouver International Airport since 1968 is to provide emergency service for an aircraft going down in the low tide mud flats next to the airport. The mud extends for miles and hovercraft are the only practical means of rescuing large numbers of survivors before the tide comes in to drown them. Just such an accident occurred on January 2, 1966 when a Grumman G-21A Goose flown by BC Air Lines overshot a runway and landed out in the tidal flats. It was difficult to extract the 10 survivors as the only means to reach them was by helicopter. A couple of years later, on February 7, 1968, a Canadian Pacific Boeing 707 nearly did the same thing while skidding off the airport’s runway. If the aircraft had continued on into the mud or the shallow waters of a low tide, rescuing the 61 crew and passengers onboard would have been challenging. Later that year, in August, two SRN-6 hovercraft started regular operations from the station. In 1971, Captain John McGrath became the station’s Officer-In-Charge and was instrumental in acquiring the larger hovercraft replacements for the SRN-6s. His other major project was to develop and implement his vision for a fully staffed Dive Rescue capability. Captain McGrath, with the help of Rescue Specialist Tim McFarlane realized this dream with the creation of today’s Dive Rescue unit in 2003. But by government logic, since the Vancouver International airport has never had a serious large scale crash in the mud, then why continue the costly funding of the station and its two expensive hovercraft? Why not retire the hovercraft and rely on shallow draft 733/753 Zodiacs and hope if a plane goes in that it happens at high tide?

The voices against the removal of the Dive Rescue Unit are beginning to intensify. There are clear emotional and logical arguments to keep these knowledgeable, dedicated, experienced heroes in place. The half million/year reported ‘savings’ amounts to .02% of the CCG’s 2017 reported $2.5-billion budget. (If you watch the Simpson’s clip, you’ll see how upset Homer gets over a measly extra $5 Bear Patrol Tax.) Like my former classmates, these dedicated CCG personnel fight with ‘fire in their bellies’ while providing a demonstrated public service to the citizens of their SAR area of responsibility.

Keep the divers at Sea Island and tell the Liberals to stop trying to repeat tragic history.

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Doc displaying his ‘Indication’ upon finding human remains during a training exercise. Photo courtesy of Natasha Dilkie

RCMP HRD Dog – Innovative Research in Nova Scotia

(Original article published on RUSI(NS) website)

On May 10, 2017, as part of their Distinguished Speaker program, the Royal United Services Institute of Nova Scotia was privileged to arrange a presentation by Natasha Dilkie, MSc, titled “Human Remains Detection: Validity of Dog Training using Donated Human Remains in the Province of Nova Scotia.” The presentation was generously hosted by the RCMP at their “H” Division headquarters in Dartmouth and was well attended by RUSI(NS) members and guests including representatives of the Nova Scotia Medical Examiner Service (NSMES) and Halifax Regional Police.

In cooperation with the NSMES and the RCMP, Natasha is pioneering Canadian research in the field of human remains detection (HRD) dog training. They are not the first who have worked with HRD dogs, also known as cadaver dogs, as there are other Canadian organizations with them. But with the help of RCMP dog handler Constable Brian Veniot and a six year old German Shepherd named Doc, they are Canada’s first team to be trained on donated human remains through the NSMES procurement program.

Originally, Doc started his RCMP career at the Halifax airport sniffing for explosives. In 2014, he was picked for the new HRD program, spearheaded by NSMES, who had brought in the scientific and research expertise of Natasha. From the videos during the presentation, it is obvious that this remarkable dog is proficient at his work.

Doc as a fresh, young RCMP recruit. Photo courtesy of NS RCMP

As Natasha explained, other parts of the world such as the US or Europe have led the way with HRD/cadaver dog research and use for many years now. In the aftermath of 9/11, when the search and rescue canine units had done all that they could do, the cadaver dog units came in to help pinpoint human remains. These dogs are unsung heroes who provide grieving families with closure after the tragedy of losing a loved one. Although rare, a need for the same capability is required in Canada. Generally this task falls to specialized police units such as the RCMP Underwater Recovery Team or volunteer search and rescue organizations. Talented dogs like Doc would be another resource to enable these organizations to complete timely and safer recoveries of human remains.

The audience received an enlightening education on the amazing capabilities of these hard-working animals. Dogs in general have millions more scent receptors compared to a human. Some particular breeds like German Shepherds, Bloodhounds or Cocker Spaniels are even more suited as scent dogs due to temperament and agility, and are widely used for a variety of purposes by police, military and emergency agencies. Here are just some of the abilities of these dogs:

  • Research has shown that their scent sensitivity can be as high as parts per trillion.
  • A dog can retain the memory of a particular scent for up to four weeks.
  • Even if a body has been moved, a dog can pick up the scent many weeks later.
  • Properly trained dogs are adept at finding bodies no matter their location or state of decay. The only real limiting factor is extreme cold.
  • Even victims underwater can be detected. Some UK cadaver dogs have found human remains in depths of 30 feet!

If you did not have enough reasons to sign your Organ Donor’s card and talk to your family about your final wishes, Natasha gave us another one. Humans have a unique scent signature when they pass away that is difficult to synthesize and cannot be replicated with animal remains. Due to this, it is critical for HRD dogs to use actual human remains for training. To that end, after obtaining next-of-kin permission, many NS families and organ donors have generously consented to allow their remains to be used for this important research and training.

Natasha’s vision is to further her research and training to the point where protocols, procedures and HRD dog teams are available to every Canadian province and major police force. To that end she will continue to research and work with Constable Veniot and Doc, liaise with other HRD experts from around the world, and present her work to various stakeholder groups. She has already presented her findings to various Police Associations and is scheduled to do a poster presentation at the 2017 Toronto International Association of Forensic Sciences Conference.

More of Natasha Dilkie’s professional activities and HRD research can be accessed at her LinkedIn profile.

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Pals and Buddies – Canada, the First World War and Vimy

On April 2, 2017, the Dalhousie Undergraduate History Society[1] arranged to have Honorary Colonel John Boileau[2] give a lecture entitled Canada and the First World War – A Remarkable Record. The timing of the presentation is apropos as the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge[3], April 9-12, 1917, is fast approaching.

Similar commemorative Vimy Ridge ceremonies[4], events, plays, and exhibits will be taking place all across Canada in the coming days. Two main ceremonies will take place in Ottawa and France. The Nova Scotia Highlanders who stormed Hill 145, now the site of the famous memorial, hopefully would be amazed at how that unholy landscape was transformed into an oasis of tranquility and reverence. Even the site’s most infamous visitor was awed and moved by the Canadian monument.[5]

Colonel Boileau took a couple of hours to briefly touch on Canada’s contribution and sacrifices during the Great War. At first, he was in a quandary as to how to approach the vast topic. There were many options such as approaching the project anecdotally, sequentially, nationally or by historical significance. As he termed it, he took a typical Canadian tactic and came at the issue from all angles to meet in the center. It’s worth mentioning his opening joke of ‘Why did the Canadian cross the road?’ with the reply, ‘To get to the middle!’ Narrowing down the immense amount of information available, he described the major battles Canadians fought in: Ypres, Somme, Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, Amiens and Canada’s 100 Days[6]. He spoke of the stalwartness of Canadian troops who stood resolute in the face of German chlorine attacks at Ypres. This brand new method of warfare was used first to hit the French lines causing panic and confusion. The Germans hit the lines again with clouds of deadly, green gas but the Canadians had produced a counter-method to the poison by breathing through cloth they had urinated on. The Canadian Corps were often up front and center, first in the line of German fire.

Canadians were known for their inventiveness, ingenuity and as fearsome shock troops. Colonel Boileau described the Canadian innovations such as the Motor Machine gun Brigade, the practice of trench raiding, meticulous battle planning and preparation, and throwing off the Germans by not always preceding an attack with artillery. The Allies soon made the Canadians their go-to troops to the point that their movements had to be disguised so as not to tip off the Germans of an imminent attack. Canadian soldiers, time and time again, proved themselves on the fields of battle. Of course in Canadian mythology, it was the battle of Vimy Ridge where over the course of four days our nation was born. The Colonel even had a letter from one of the young soldiers who opined that the battle had given birth to Canada as a nation. Sadly, not long after, the soldier’s parents received a telegram with news of his death.

There were a few powerful key messages I took away from the Colonel’s presentation. First, this was warfare on an industrial scale, of which had never been previously experienced by the nations involved. Mobilization and casualty rates[7] were incredibly high as the horror of trench warfare chewed up millions of men, animals and equipment. A hundred years on, the vast majority of Canadians would find it impossible to comprehend the effort and sacrifice needed to keep pressing forward. Sure, the motto and motivation of the time was for King and Country but for the men in the trenches, my feeling was they were fighting for each other. Your pals and buddies were launching themselves over the wall into No Man’s Land in desperate attempts to cheat death. Letting them down would have been a strong motivator to get you moving when every human instinct was telling you to stay put.

My mother’s father was a young man just before the outbreak of World War II and this stimulus for fighting with your pals was still in full force. The vast majority of Canadians fighters have been volunteers but the military knows how to recruit when needed. My grandfather was in Grade Twelve and all the young men had to take a four week Homeland Security Basic training course. At the end when they were all pumped up, they were asked to join up. Peer pressure did the rest and unless you had a valid reason such as being a farmer like my other grandfather, you were signed up on the spot. Many families, smaller towns and villages lost disproportionately high numbers of their male population due to men signing up with their buddies.[8]

Another message I thought about after the lecture was how did those young men function and exist in this horrid environment for even a day let alone years? I draw on my own experience as a 19 year old arriving in Borden, Ontario for Basic Officer Training back in 1986. They took a picture of me shortly after getting off the bus and I literally have the look of a frightened deer in the headlights. I was fresh off the farm, wondering what I had gotten myself into and why was there so much yelling. During the training, my company executed a frontal assault on a defended ridge. I was panting in my gas mask, charging towards the mock enemy and clearly remember the ‘grenade’ lobbed towards me landing at my feet. I lay down at that moment knowing I was ‘fatally wounded’. My infantry experience would be nothing compared to the shock of a typical Canadian soldier[9] being thrown into the maelstrom of death, gore and muck of a place such as the Ypres Salient. The average age of a Canuck soldier was 26, but most of the men in the infantry were much younger. In fact, by some estimates, 20,000 underage boys enlisted to fight with reports that the youngest in the trenches was 12. Most modern Canadian children are thinking about babysitting at this age, not fighting in a war. Of course, the stipulated age for joining was 18 to 45 but males at both ends of the spectrum lied about their ages. The entire affair was a monumental testament to both the inhumanity of our species and to humanity’s ability to persevere in such cruel conditions.

The last striking message to me was the sheer number of Unknown Soldiers. One quarter of Canadian deaths resulted in no known graves. Similar, if not higher numbers, were suffered by the Allies[10]. There are German war cemeteries where each cross is used for a set amount of soldiers as circumstances dictated mass grave burials. The modern Canadian Armed Forces takes great pains to bring our dead home, giving rise to poignant national ‘Ramp’ ceremonies and processions down the Highway of Heroes. But the only closure for thousands of relatives and loved ones back then would have been the dreaded telegram. Occasionally, with DNA matching, a few soldiers are being identified and finally put to rest. Envision how devastating it was for all those swaths of families who could not hold a proper burial service.

The museum at the Halifax Citadel is holding a special free open house to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of Vimy Ridge the weekend of April 8-12. Even though it was meant to be the War that ended all Wars and happened long ago, it is still vitally important that all Canadians attend or watch a Vimy commemoration. War should not be glamourized but the sacrifices and triumphs of all those brave Canadians on those far away battlefronts should not be forgotten. There should be meaning and understanding when uttering the phrase ‘We will remember them’.

[1] Dalhousie Undergraduate History Society Homepage –

[2] Colonel Boileau’s Biography – Bio_Boileau

[3] The Battle of Vimy Ridge – Veterans Affairs Canada, February 27, 2017 –

[4] Veteran’s Canada links to Vimy Ridge Commemoration ceremonies across Canada and in France – Veterans Affairs Canada, April 1, 2017 –

[5] During the German WWII European occupation, many Allied war cemeteries were defaced and damaged by revengeful German troops. After British reports of the monument being purposely damaged by Germans, Hitler did a photo-op on the Vimy Ridge grounds to prove it was still standing and unharmed. He also stationed Waffen-SS troops to guard the grounds. The site was re-taken by the Welsh Guards and verified to be unharmed in September 1944. Hitler’s Visit Still Haunting, The London Free Press, Greg van Moorsel, April 5, 2007 –

[6] Historical Sheets on many of the Canadian Corps major WW1 battles – Veterans Affairs Canada, April 6, 2016 –

[7] From a nation of 8 million people, Canada put 650,000 men and women in uniform. This included 3,141 women who served as Nursing Sisters. By the end of the war, Canada’s price in blood was 66,000 dead and more than 172,000 wounded. 45 Nursing Sisters had perished from a hospital bombing, a hospital ship being sunk and disease. Veterans Affairs Canada – The Nursing Sisters of Canada, November 18, 2016 –

[8] At the start of the war, Britain saw the formation of ‘Pals’ Battalions. After one particular bloody battle or another, this would result in a village’s male population to be no more. Facts & Figures, Ian Houghton ––figures–myths.html

[9] Tommy Canuck – The Infantry Soldier, Canadian War Museum,

[10] Wikipedia entry on WWI Casualty figures –

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Photo courtesy of C-27J Canada

Leonardo’s FWSAR Court Battle

(This post is dedicated to the memory of SHOTGUN 36. Scores of RCAF pilots benefited from his tireless dedication. He will be missed!)

Happy 93rd Birthday to the RCAF!

Lieutenant General (Ret’d) Steve Lucas[1], a spokesman for Leonardo S.p.A., laid out the company’s position for disputing the recent FWSAR contract. As a former Chief of the Air Staff and then special advisor to the consortium that put together the bid for the FWSAR, LGen Lucas had a unique insight to the twists and turns of the process. He has substantial experience from an Air Force Air Navigator and staff officer point of view. He put in numerous hours with the Spartan Team to ensure a strong technical bid that would provide the Air Force with a superior aircraft, on time and on budget. He was confused as to why the C295W was chosen when it appeared to be clearly non-compliant in a few key areas.

LGen Lucas already had several reservations about the capability of the Airbus product. He agreed that the C295W was slow compared to the C27J which puts victims in jeopardy due to higher wait times especially when a search area is at a significant distance. He doesn’t like the fact that because the C295W was based on a passenger aircraft thus limiting the usable height in the cargo area where the SAR Technicians will be working. He did concede that Airbus was planning on producing their aircraft with more powerful engines in order to marginally increase its two engine speed and mitigate issues with one engine operations.

But the main basis for the lawsuit rests on two points where the Airbus aircraft literally did not meet the Request For Proposal (RFP) criteria.

  • Point One – It was specified that the winning aircraft must be able to complete all SAR missions in a single crew day. In the case of a high Arctic rescue mission, the C295W does not have the speed to accomplish this scenario. The ‘out’ for Airbus was to add a fifth Main Operating Base which was allowed for in the RFP but this would add significant cost to the bid. It would make more sense just to have an aircraft that can accomplish these extreme missions without the extra resources.
  • Point Two – The current C295W unlike most other aircraft of its type is not built with an Auxiliary Power Unit (APU). An APU is handy for self-starting the aircraft, especially in out of the way airports where start carts and qualified personnel might be an issue. An APU becomes more critical during emergencies where an engine is down and it can be used to power extra systems instead of relying on your good engine to do all the work. This would be of great concern to an aircrew on a search over the Atlantic with an engine out and a significant distance from a suitable airfield. The lack of APU and lower airspeed hurts the C295W’s unofficial Extended Operations (ETOPS) performance which is approximately 140 minutes. If this aircraft flew to the extreme Atlantic edge of Canada’s SAR zone of 30˚W, it would require an ETOPS rating of 330. The C27J has an unofficial ETOPS 240 rating, which with its speed would allow it to safely accomplish missions to the far ocean edges of the SAR zones. SAR crews flying the 295W would be unnecessarily placed into harm’s way whereas they wouldn’t have those concerns flying the Spartan.

During my research, LGen Lucas and others shared their thoughts on possible ways in which doors were opened for competition against the C27J which eventually led to the awarding of the bid to Airbus. Originally, it was alleged that the Air Force tilted the SORs so much in favour of the Spartan that it ended up being the only aircraft qualified. The government wanted to show they could hold an open and fair procurement process, so they appear to have re-jigged the competition so other companies could engage in bidding. Even with this re-jigging, it appeared that the Spartan was still going to win. The public probably wouldn’t have been happy with an expensive 10 year wheel-spinning process that just returned the government back to the original choice of the C27J. But if you fiddle with the points awarded for items like lifetime in-service support and decrease points awarded for capability, then you can skew the numbers in a pre-determined direction. For example, the lack of APU in the C295W and associated inherent weaknesses did not seem to factor against the aircraft in the bidding scoring matrix. Viola! SOR manipulation that appears open, fair and just. Ironically, this was exactly what Airbus had accused the RCAF of doing back in 2005.

The Federal government and Airbus have until April 10, 2017 to respond to the points brought up in the Leonardo lawsuit. It is expected that the courts will start looking at the claims and responses in June.

Fifth Estate did an interview with the retired LGen in 2012 about his thoughts on the proposed Air Force purchase of the F-35[2]. At the end of the interview, he makes a statement, ‘Nobody wants to put their friends, their colleagues into a situation where they are going to come out second best’. This would seem to hold true for the FWSAR purchase. The RCAF SAR aircrews and ex-Air Force personnel supporting and putting in the Spartan bid all want what is best for the men and women out on those austere SAR missions. To borrow a few more of the LGen’s words, you don’t get any prizes for finishing second.

[1] Annoucement of appointment of LGen Lucas as Commander of Air Command and Chief of the Air Staff, May 16,2005 –

[2] Fifth Estate interview with LGen Lucas on F-35 purchase for RCAF, September 28, 2012 –

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RCN’s Atlantic Fleet Diving Unit

Fleet Diving Unit (Atlantic) FDU(A) played host to numerous members of RUSI(NS), the RCMP Underwater Recovery Team, and other assorted diver, military and community associations at their Shearwater facilities on the morning of March 15, 2017. Commanding Officer Lieutenant Commander William Barter and Operations Officer Joel Cormier gave a briefing to the gathering on the roles, responsibilities and activities of the unit. This was followed up by an informative tour of their gear and equipment.

FDU(A)’s hangar located at NA Jetty, Shearwater, NS

For the general public and even for the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), the unit tends to be a hidden dynamo in the rough. Located over with their Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) cousins at Shearwater close to the Yacht Club, they are removed from the attention and activity that takes place at Her Majesty’s Canadian (HMC) Dockyard. Infrequently, their NA jetty sees use if a Sea King requires hoisting from a ship’s deck or if a visiting foreign submarine needs to come alongside. Ship’s companies know the unit as the place to send their Ship’s Team Divers for training. Frigates engaged in Force Protection training frequently ‘fight’ off the unit’s Fast Attack Craft when they are in the vicinity of Maugher’s Beach lighthouse. Occasionally, the unit’s dive tender vessel can be seen transiting the Narrows enroute to their demolitions site in Roach Cove up in Bedford Basin. But in the course of the briefing, the audience soon realized this tranquil exterior hid a bustling organization active in Canada and abroad.

FDU(A) divers conduct Ice Diving training during OP NUNALIVUT – Photo courtesy of RCN

At present, the unit has 111 Clearance Divers and support personnel with a mixture of officers, Non-Commissioned Members (NCMs) and a few civilian administrative staff. The unit also continuously employs a substantial number of Reservists. During 2016, they deployed personnel to 15 locations worldwide and plan on at least 11 deployments this year. Locally, they are constantly on call to use their specialized skills with Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) responding to cases involving military Unexploded Ordinance (UXOs). Their Area of Responsibility (AOR) includes the upper two thirds of Nova Scotia and all of Newfoundland and Labrador. As for discovered underwater UXOs, they split the country in half at the MB/ON border with their sister unit FDU(P) in Esquimalt, BC. In addition, members can be called upon to conduct Underwater Engineering duties such as emergency bearing changes or hull repairs on deployed frigates. They are on standby in case of a submarine incident (SUBSAR), other SARs such as overturned vessels or recovery operations such as the crash of Swissair Flight 111 off Peggy’s Cove. Personnel are kept busy training up to 80 new Ship’s Team Divers/year plus other training programs. They frequently cooperate with Other Government Departments (OGDs) such as the RCMP Underwater Recovery Team and Parks Canada. Notably in 2015, FDU(A) in cooperation with Parks Canada conducted historic diving on HMS Erebus in the far North. It would seem rare to catch a diver lazing around back at the shop. Even in their down time, they are busy with constant gear and equipment maintenance or community activities. The unit participated in their 33rd Christmas Daddies 50K Run last December, raising close to $12,000 for the charity. This is a dedicated, hard-working, multi-disciplined unit with a myriad of talents and responsibilities.

FDU(A) on 50K run for charity – Photo courtesy of Christmas Daddies

One of the RUSI(NS) members remarked, “The biggest surprise to me was that for a small unit (about 111 pers covering half of Canada), they have significant warfighting, training and emergency responsibilities which they hone through a significant amount of world-wide training and operational deployments.”

FDU(A)’s Remotely Operated Vehicle

FDU(A)’s unique skills and expertise are in demand worldwide. Some of their recent exercises and operations include EX DYNAMIC MONARCH 14 (SUBSAR Training), RIMPAC (NATO Pacific Exercise), CUTLASS FURY 16 (Mine Countermeasure training), OP UNIFER (Training Ukrainian military on EOD disposal), OP OPEN SPIRIT (Clearing UXOs in the Baltic, link to explosion footage of a 2000 lb mine), EX TRADEWINDS (Interoperability training with the US in the Caribbean), OP RENDER SAFE (UXO clearing in the Solomon Islands), EX NORTHERN COAST (NATO training in Europe) and OP NUNALIVUT (Sovereignty exercise in Canada’s North). Anecdotally, on a recent OP NUNALIVUT, the dive team was called upon to do maintenance on CFS Alert’s fresh water pumps. The station was close to losing their water supply and without the assistance of the experienced ice water divers would have been reduced to their 30 day bottled water supply. Going back a few years to the Afghanistan war, clearance divers were in high demand for their EOD skills and were regularly deployed to deal with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Tragically, there were casualties. The unit makes regular real-world contributions in a wide variety of locales and environments.

FDU(A)’s Duocomm hyperbaric chamber

After the briefing session, the group toured through FDU(A)’s remarkable selection of gear and equipment. The unit uses a varied assortment of dive gear including rebreathers, surface supply dive systems, different kinds of hyperbaric chambers, surface EOD suits & equipment, several types of vessels for dive tending plus a tethered Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV). The CO took time to describe one piece of gear the unit members find quite useful. One particular job of a clearance diver is to literally clear an area for hazards. Typically, this is done by the relatively slow method of line searching where the diver is guided in a search pattern through tugs on a line. During the lead-up to the Vancouver Olympics, the unit acquired the relatively inexpensive (@$10000) Shark Marine Technologies Navigator. It is a diver held Sonar Imaging and Navigation System which greatly reduces searching times. The CO stated that what used to take them a week’s worth of diving could be reduced to a day! The RCMP divers were quite interested in this piece of gear.

FDU(A)’s EOD robot for IED disposal

The future for the FDU(A) continues to look bright and demanding. They are looking forward to working with the RCAF’s new CH-148 Cyclone helicopter to develop diver operations and procedures from the aircraft. There is talk of placing 6-7 person teams on the RCN’s new Arctic Offshore Patrol (AOPs) vessels. The unit is pushing to purchase an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) such as an Iver 3 AUVAC or REMUS AUV which are in use with other navies. Last fall during CUTLASS FURY 16, members had a chance to see an USN REMUS in action during their joint Mine Counter Measure (MCM) training in Bedford Basin. Lastly, like all divers, they push forward researching and looking out for new technology and gear to develop and enhance their expertise and skill sets.

The people partaking of the tour were thoroughly impressed with their morning’s activities at FDU(A). The event was well planned and executed and gave the group first-hand information and a chance to see some interesting kit. Everyone present enjoyed the opportunity to interact with and learn about one of the RCN’s best kept secrets on the Atlantic coast.

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The Airbus Defence & Space C295W – Photo courtesy of CAF

FWSAR: Analysis of the C295W Airbus Acquisition

This past December, the Liberal government announced a $2.4 billion contract to acquire sixteen Airbus C295W aircraft as the new Fixed Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) platform. The aircraft will replace the remaining six Buffalos of 442 Squadron in Comox, BC and the twelve C-130H Legacy (ie. Old) Hercules flown from Winnipeg, Trenton and Greenwood SAR squadrons. The four Twin Otters of 440 Squadron in Yellowknife will undergo a Life Extension in order to extend their operational life to 2025.

In a move reminiscent of the winning bidder lobbying battles back in 2005, Leonardo S.p.A. launched a lawsuit February 21, to overturn the contract. Depending on the success of the court proceedings, the odyssey of replacing the RCAF’s FWSAR fleet may be substantially delayed once again.

Background of FWSAR Missions

Search and Rescue Regions of Canada – Image courtesy of RCAF

Canada’s Search and Rescue (SAR) area of responsibility covers over 18 million square kilometers of land and sea. The mandate of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) is to provide primary aeronautical SAR coverage with secondary maritime and ground coverage as coordinated through the regional Joint Rescue Coordination Centers (JRCCs).

Of the approximate 1000 annual aeronautical SAR taskings[1] JRCCs assign to the RCAF squadrons, FWSAR responds to 350 calls/year.[2] These numbers tie in with what I observed during my time with 442 Squadron in Comox, in 2008-09 where the squadron was responding to about 250 incidents (Buffalo & Cormorant) each year.

Three main principles for a successful aerial SAR are:

  • Speed to Last Known Position (LKP)
  • Availability of Time on Station
  • SAR Payload capacity

Once an aircraft has flown to the LKP, if they’re lucky, there will be obvious smoking wreckage or survivors waving at them. If not, the aircraft will conduct search patterns at lower and lower altitudes. The mountainous terrain of the Rockies presents the most challenging search locations due to the complex flying conditions plus the difficulty of spotting crash sites. I have seen pictures where the only evidence of the crash was a gash down the side of a tree. The Buffalo with attentive, trained spotters in the back is particularly suited for this type of flying and searching.

Captain (Ret’d) Ray Jacobson, a former FWSAR Air Navigator, gave me his operator’s point of view. He flew operationally in the SAR role in all three Search and Rescue Regions (SRRs) in Canada and has an extensive navigating background flying both the Hercules and the Buffalo. He has a unique insight into the pros and cons of those aircraft (and similar ones) as well as a very good feel for what it’s like flying and searching from Coast to Coast. He described to me how they use the Buffalo for ‘Valley Shoots’ to effectively terrain search in the mountains.

Sensor suites are fine in theory… but you cannot replace the human eye, therefore I’ll argue to my grave that you’ll always need a platform that can get low and slow enough to get a pair of eyes on the terrain. We had a procedure in the Buffalo called a Valley Shoot. When trying to contour a mountain you can’t get low enough over every nook and cranny… the valley shoot allowed the aircraft to descend rapidly and safely over a cut-line and enable the aircraft to ‘cover’ that section of the mountain at the prescribed search altitude. So you’d crest a ridge line and then drop full flap and drop the gear and then ‘shoot’ the valley. Great roller-coaster ride… as you descend rapidly to the base of the mountain. This was a very effective search technique though and it was valley-shoots that enabled spotters to get ‘eyes on’ crashed airplanes and resolve 3 of the last major air searches that I was involved with. I was on numerous searches and I’ve lost track of the number of times that aircraft were only spotted as ‘something didn’t look right’ and caught the spotter’s eye. Sensors, I’m afraid, are no match for the human eye and the associated interpretive abilities of the spotter. Only a human would notice that there were abnormalities in what he was seeing.

As he explained further, this was why Buffalos were kept in Comox instead of replacing them with Legacy Hercules.

Of course a Hercules would always be a preferable platform in Trenton and Halifax’s SRRs, but the Hercules is just too big to be operating safely in the Mountains. I have over 5,000 hrs on the Herc and flew SAR out of Namao (Edmonton) and Trenton. Flying even an H Model (the E’s were slower by 15kts) was a challenge and not very effective in mountainous (even hilly) terrain. As you have a stall speed of 110 kts to contend with, you were always dangerously close to it in the Herc as your search speed was 130 kts. Anything faster and the spotters only saw a blur! Often, though, you’d have to boost the speed to 160 kts to crest ridge lines, etc so our search effectiveness was really compromised. No problem if you had a cooperative target, but targets were rarely that. Also a Herc needs a minimum of 5,000’ of runway to land at… so that knocks out about 85% of the airfields we now go into in a Buffalo. The Herc was a good platform for most of the landmass east of the Canadian Rockies and it was perfect for the Far North and calls out to the middle of the Atlantic.

Canadian SAR is particularly difficult and dangerous. The RCAF aircrews and SAR Technicians have to continuously be on top of their game so that ‘Others May Live’. Unfortunately, their aircraft should have long ago been replaced and even with the C295W announcement, the first aircraft is not due until 2019.

The Tortuous Road of FWSAR Replacement

Below is a brief timeline of the 20+ year FWSAR replacement process:

  • 2002 – The Air Force had long ago decided back in the 90’s that it was time to replace the aging fleets with a new FWSAR platform. They made another push in 2002 for a FWSAR replacement.
  • 2003 – Prime Minister Jean Chrétien made the project a priority and allocated funding for 15 aircraft with first delivery date of 2006.[3]
  • 2004 – A FWSAR Project Office was stood up at DND and they began working on Statements of Requirements (SORs).[4]
  • 2005 – Airbus who was lobbying for their C295W to be chosen was upset that the Air Force seemed to be leaning heavily towards the Leonardo Spartan C27J.[5] The main point in favour of the C27J and against the C295W was the former’s cruise speed of 315 kts was above the Air Force mark of a required 273 kt cruising speed with the latter’s pegged at 244 kts.[6]
  • 2006 – SORs were developed but the FWSAR Project Office was dissolved in order to work on higher priority projects.[7]
  • 2008 – After the release of the Canada First Defence Strategy, the FWSAR Project Office was resurrected.
  • 2009 – The MND, Peter MacKay and the Harper government proposes to sole source contract the FWSAR favouring the C27J. The Aerospace industry was asked to submit their concerns with this plan.
  • Fall 2009 – DND, PublicWorks and Government Services Canada (PWGSC), and Industry Canada (IC) reviewed industry concerns. After the consultation process, the Government engaged the National Research Council (NRC) to conduct an independent review of the FWSAR SOR.
  • 2010 – The NRC released its Final Report on the FWSAR SORs. A main point which opened the door back up to competition was their conclusion that the process should switch to a capability SOR model vice a platform centric one.[8]
  • March 2012 – The federal government approved funding once again for the FWSAR.
  • January 2016 – Bidding closed on the project. Embraer from Brazil had their bid nullified in March, leaving only the Spartan and the C295W as contenders.[9]
  • June 2016 – Bid evaluation completed
  • December 1, 2016 – C295W announcement made by the Liberal government.
  • 2019 – Expected delivery of first aircraft.[10] This is an approximate date with the effect of Leonardo’s court challenge yet to be determined.
  • 2022 – Expected delivery of last aircraft

273 Knot Threshold

As early as 2005, Airbus was accusing the Air Force of writing their SORs too stringently. The perception was the Spartan had already been picked and the game was rigged in favour of a sole source aircraft. A main failing of the C295W is the cruise speed of 244 kts which was below a stated original SOR minimum of 273 kts. The 2010 NRC evaluation came to the following determination: It is not clear why the 273 knots cruise speed was chosen to be the target over the other calculated cruise speeds and the effect on crews that are on duty (30minute standby) is not addressed in the SOR or the operational research paper used to derive the cruise speed requirement. As the selected cruise speed of 273 knots does not allow the aircraft to meet with many of the stated requirements of the program, it is difficult to defend this speed as a mandatory minimum requirement. Cruise speed is a key discriminator in this program. But when you read further into the report, Furthermore, the stipulated minimum cruise speed of 273 knots would not satisfy the level of service assumption, nor maintain the current level of service that includes the CC130 Hercules aircraft which cruise at 300 knots. The idea was to choose a platform that would be an improvement on the existing FWSAR fleets.

In a Defence R&D Canada paper,[11] the authors attempted to determine the ideal cruising speed required of a FWSAR platform using historical SAR incidents from 1996-2004.

Locations of historical (1996-2004) SAR incidents responded to by FWSAR aircraft – Image courtesy of Defence R&D Canada

The researchers used a response performance model coined Basing, Endurance, and Speed Tool (BEST) to run a series of simulations to determine the outcomes of several proposal scenarios to determine if there was an ideal cruise speed/endurance ratio. They used a variety of proposals summarized in the following table:

Note: Proposal A is very close to the cruise speed and endurance of the C27J

Below are the results after their comparison runs which indicate Proposal A is the optimum combination of cruise speed and endurance:

Table 4: Comparison of example FWSAR solution performance.

Historical Incidents SRR Extremes

Proposal A
Proposal B
No Service
Proposal C
Proposal D
Proposal E

This 2013 Defence study clearly shows that speeds for the new FWSAR platform needed to be at a minimum of 315 knots, an improvement on the Legacy Hercules. In the paper’s conclusion, they state that the research tools developed at DRDC would be part of the first-ever, capability-based procurement of an aircraft fleet by the Government of Canada, according to the PMO.

The premise of speedy FWSAR aircraft had even gained traction within the Royal Military College Aeronautical Engineering Department. The 2015 class was asked to develop the CV-151 Oracle, a replacement aircraft for the Twin Otter.[12] From the original design specifications given to the engineering class, they were expected to produce an aircraft that cruised well above 300 kts.

Requirement CDR Values Target
Maximum cargo weight 4500 lbf 4500 lbf
STOL range (with maximum cargo) 668 nmi ≥ 850 nmi
VTOL range (with maximum cargo) 293 nmi ≥ 250 nmi
Ferry range 1489 nmi ≥ 1900 nmi
Maximum airspeed (SSL) 340 KTAS ≥ 300 KTAS
Maximum airspeed (FL100) 345 KTAS ≥ 360 KTAS
Cruise airspeed (FL250) 327 KTAS ≥ 300 KTAS
Stall airspeed (SSL) 98 KTAS clean

69 KTAS (dirty)

Maneuvering airspeed (SSL) 105 KTAS ≤ 100 KTAS
Rate of climb (SSL) 4769 ft/min ≥ 4000 ft/min
Absolute ceiling 31249 ft ≥ 28000 ft
Operational ceiling 29500 ft ≥ 28000 ft

So how did the C295W with its low cruise speed of 244 kts make it through the process? The research and military thinking stipulated an aircraft faster than 300 kts was the sought ideal.

SAR navigator Capt Jacobson is also disturbed by the C295J’s slower speed. Since Canada has elected a single platform solution for FWSAR then it was imperative that the platform selected be able to launch from southern Canada and be able to reach the Far North in no more than 12hrs. The Hercules was just able to do that… the Herc’s speed is 315Kts. So you don’t have to be a mathematical genius to understand that any claims that the CASA 295 could fulfill that requirement were obviously ‘cooked’. The Buffalo’s speed of 220Kts was always a handicap in this SRR… fortunately people operating in the Yukon knew that we were a minimum of 4 to 5 hrs away and they were prepared for it. Of concern in Trenton’s and Halifax’s regions is all the commercial airliner’s transiting our Far North and in addition for Halifax is all the oceanic traffic, both commercial air and marine. I flew the Buffalo out of Summerside years ago and the speed was very much a handicap in servicing that SRR. The CASA’s speed simply does not cut it… this country and its areas of responsibility are simply too vast. There is a solution to this ‘lack of speed’, (ergo ‘longer response time), but it’s an expensive one. The solution would be to base additional aircraft in the Far North (Whitehorse, Yellowknife, Churchill, Iqaluit, etc)… but imagine the extra cost!

RCAF Aircrew, military thinking and DRDC research confirmed the original Air Force stipulation that an aircraft with a cruising speed over 300 kts was required but this requirement was ignored.

FWSAR Ergonomics

Another major drawback of the C295W is the relatively low cabin height for the SAR Techs. The diagram below illustrates the height differences between the Spartan and the Airbus products:


The 2010 NRC SOR document concluded the inclusion of minimum cabin height and width requirements in the SOR was appropriate. The stated requirement for a minimum cabin height of 83 inches in height (210.8 cm) is not supported. Given the importance of minimum cabin dimensions in discriminating between candidate aircraft, it is important that the definition of minimum requirements be based on a sound and comprehensive analysis of accommodation requirements. It is recommended that DND conduct an analysis of the work envelope of SAR Technicians across a complete range of tasks and roles. The NRC spoke with SAR Techs who were happy with the Buffalo’s height range of 78-82”. But the C295J only has a height of 75”.

Capt Jacobson also agrees that the SAR Techs are going to be inconvenienced. The height/diameter of the fuselage of the CASA is way too short!! Have you ever been in the back of the Buffalo when 3 SARTECHs are trying to maneuver around one another once they have all their jump kit on? Each guy is carrying 265 lbs of extra kit and they have to be able to step around one another when they’re preparing to jump. There’s barely enough room in the Buffalo and its ceiling is a good 8 to 9’. The CASA only has about 6’, therefore any SARTECH trying to work back there will be forced to be permanently bent at the waist… this will undoubtedly lead to long-term back ailments for anyone who’s 5’10” and taller. Most of the SARTECHs are near the 6’ mark, so I really feel for them. To me, this small fuselage should’ve ruled out this aircraft as a contender, period.

SAR Techs have enough physical concerns during their career. They don’t need to be needlessly crammed into a small area for hours at a time or worrying about space issues before jumping.

C295W Power Concerns

One other important issue with the Airbus C295 that raises concerns with former SAR Buffalo pilot Scott Goebel is the aircraft’s power plant. The plane uses two Pratt & Whitney Canada PW 127G turboprop engines with a stated Engine Power (each) of 1972 kW / 2645 SHP. He believes that the aircraft may be under-powered for safe and effective flight in mountainous terrain. Moreover, he worries that the seemingly under-powered aircraft will not allow crews to use published air routes during instrument meteorological conditions that require it to maintain high minimum obstruction clearance altitudes, common for the Victoria region, in the event of the loss of an engine. In these situations crews must plan alternate routes that often lead to extended periods of time before reaching an area to deliver necessary aid.

For comparison, the C27J’s Maximum Engine Power is 4637 SHP per engine and the Buffalo uses a General Electric CT64-820-4 turboprop, generating 3,133 hp (2,336 kW) per engine.

Overall, between the slow speed, ergonomics and power plants, there appears to be significant reasons against purchasing the C295W. Capt Jacobson summed up his opinion of the purchase as, in a nutshell, the Government bought a fancy SUV when they really needed a Mack Truck!

Bad Timing for the Spartan C27J

Unfortunately when the FWSAR project office closed in 2006 for higher purchase priorities, the Air Force missed their chance for a replacement aircraft. Subsequently, key events conspired against the timely awarding of the contract.

The Air Force had been on a roll, acquiring new aircraft quickly due to the efforts of the CDS, General Rick Hillier to push through acquisitions in a timely manner. There was an anecdote that Hillier flew in a Dutch Chinook in Afghanistan where he could still see the old Canadian Air Force sticker under the new paint. This galled him to shove through a new Chinook procurement bid in 2006. He wanted a heavy lift capability and C17 Globemasters were ordered February 2007 and the first one flew for Canada later that year. New C130J Hercules were ordered December 2007 and 17 Hercs were delivered between 2010 and 2012. In 2009, the government and Air Force were flying high and were all set to sole source order the obvious choice for the new FWSAR. What happened?

Here’s a list of events that conspired to delay the new FWSAR for at least another 10 years:

  • Gen Rick Hillier retired as CDS July 1, 2008. Hillier was a rare CDS and instrumental at pushing programs and projects through.
  • The FWSAR Project Office had been stood down in 2006 and wasn’t reopened until mid-2008. Valuable time to work on the replacement aircraft was lost.
  • Airbus had been putting up a stink since 2005 about the favouring of the C27J over their product.
  • There was waning public support for the war in Afghanistan. The Captain Semrau incident, Afghan detainee issues and the cost of the war in blood and gold was wearing on the public’s acceptance of more high priced Defence department acquisitions.
  • The Great Global Recession! Starting in mid-2008 with the nadir occurring in spring 2009, the recession was probably the principal reason for pushing back another expensive contract for the Air Force. Sending the SORs to Industry Canada and the NRC gave the Conservative government at the time a way to stall and push off a costly purchase. Politically, they could show that they were not going to play favourites and clean up the procurement process at the same time.
  • A new Liberal government was elected in 2015. Their natural inclination would be to thoroughly dissect and discard any Conservative programs in favour of their own ideology.

The time to strike had passed. Policy changes, switching of government and unforeseen circumstances caused a FWSAR decision to be kicked down the road.


So what was the reasoning for Liberals picking the Airbus C295W when DRDC research, the RCAF and members of the SAR community clearly do not see it as an adequate platform? Perhaps it was partly politics and the optics of picking an aircraft that the opposition party was planning on purchasing. Chrétien refused to later purchase the EH-101 and the Sea Kings have still not been replaced after the contract cancellation in 1993. The government is going to great lengths to sole source Super Hornets in order to distance themselves from the Conservative’s F-35 choice.

Cost is probably also an issue as both the Spartan and Hercules C130J come with significantly higher price tags.[13] Considering each year of delay was estimated to cost an extra $40M[14] due to operating older aircraft, the 10 year hiatus will cost $400M on its own. Even the Canadian bidder, Viking Air Ltd could have built their proposed Super Buffalo and might have had it in the air by now. It seems important to build ships for the Navy in Canada, so how about considering that Made in Canada approach for the Air Force?

Regrettably, the RCAF and the SAR aircrews seem to be destined to end up saddled with a substandard aircraft. This has happened before when fighter pilots were asked to operate the CF-104 Starfighter (aka ‘The Widowmaker’ or ‘The Lawndart’), a high altitude interceptor, as a ground attack aircraft resulting in 110 crashes and 37 pilot fatalities. Another example of a poor purchase was the relatively useless CF-5 Freedom Fighter a product of Canadair, later the core company of Bombardier Aerospace. Pratt and Whitney, headquartered in Quebec, will receive more engine orders from this Airbus purchase.

It is unfortunate when politics and bureaucratic policy vice operator preference and experience seem to play such a crucial role when selecting the correct equipment for the job. SAR crews gain their knowledge through thousands of flight hours on thousands of missions in typically the worst of conditions and circumstances. Occasionally, this hard won know-how is paid with the ultimate sacrifice as with the recent death of SAR Technician, MCpl Alfred Barr. Maybe the bean counters and politicians should pay more attention to the recommendations of the people risking their lives.

[1] RCAF: Search and Rescue, September 15, 2015 –

[2] Public Services and Procurement Canada: Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue Aircraft Replacement Project, January 19, 2017 –

[3] Espritdecorps Canadian Military Magazine: FWSAR Replacement Winner Announced, January 26, 2017 –

[4] National Defence: Audit of the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) Project, May 2009, page iii/vi –

[5] Espritdecorps Canadian Military Magazine: FWSAR Replacement Winner Announced, January 26, 2017 –

[6] National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces: Fixed-wing search and rescue procurement project, February 22, 2017 –

[7] National Defence: Audit of the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) Project, May 2009, page iii/vi –

[8] NRC: Review of the Statement of Operational Requirement for the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue Aircraft – FINAL Report, March 12, 2010 –

[9] Espritdecorps Canadian Military Magazine: FWSAR Replacement Winner Announced –

[10] Public Services and Procurement Canada: Procurement timeline: Fixed-wing search and rescue aircraft, December 8, 2016 –

[11] Defence R&D Canada: Development of a Capability-Based Bidder Evaluation Tool for the Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue Replacement Project, October 2013 –

[12] Royal Military College: CV-151 Oracle Preliminary Design Report, April 1, 2015 –

[13] Roughly, each Spartan or C130J aircraft would cost $15M USD more compared to one C295W –

[14]National Defence: Audit of the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) Project, page 5/13 –

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