Publisher’s Letter from Volume 23 Issue 1 (February 2016 issue)
By Scott Taylor
On a recent long-overdue visit to CFB Petawawa, I made it a top priority to visit the facilities of 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron. In July 2014, Boeing had delivered the last of the 15 CH-147F Chinook medium- to heavy-lift helicopters to the base.
Originally ordered in 2008 at the height of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, the acquisition of the fleet of Chinooks was a rare procurement success in that Boeing delivered 15 choppers on time and on budget. In fact, the rapid rate of delivery has to date outpaced the RCAF’s ability to train qualified aircrew.
“At present we have eight and a half trained crews,” said 450 Squadron Commander Lieutenant-Colonel Chris McKenna.
McKenna took command of 450 Squadron in June 2014; he came to the job complete with operational experience flying the older D-model Chinooks in Afghanistan. McKenna was visibly proud of his command as I toured the brand new 500,000-square metre, $250 million monster hangar.
What struck me first and foremost was how un-Canadian the whole facility seemed in that our military has become accustomed to making do with second-rate equipment for the past seven decades. To have a world-class hangar housing 15 of the most advanced tactical helicopters somehow doesn’t fit the familiar mould.
Canada originally purchased 6 Chinook helicopters in 1968, and it was at that time that 450 Squadron was first activated as a transport helicopter squadron. It has been tradition in the RCAF for operational squadrons to perpetuate the wartime legacy of previous Canadian units. During the Second World War, RCAF squadrons were assigned the numbers 400 through 449. The only historical designation of a 450 Squadron is of a now-defunct Royal Australian Air Force squadron that fought in the Middle East and Italy. The assignment of 450 was a clerical error, but once the die was cast, no bureaucrat was going to correct it.
In 1991 Canada made the decision to give its original aging Chinook fleet to the Dutch Air Force rather than invest in an expensive refurbishment. By 1996, the now Chinook-less 450 Squadron was deactivated, prior to being officially disbanded in January 1998.
Ironically, in the early days of Canada’s deployment to Afghanistan, Canadian soldiers found themselves hitching a lift into battle aboard the same Dutch Chinooks that Canada had given away. The counterinsurgency in Kandahar demonstrated the vulnerability of coalition convoys against roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and proved the worth of the tactical advantage provided by the Chinook’s payload.
Canada placed the order to acquire 15 of the modernized F models in 2008, knowing they would not be available before our combat mission was to end in December 2011. As a stopgap, Canada purchased six older D-model Chinooks from the U.S. Air Force at a total cost of $300 million. It was in one of these used Chinooks that McKenna flew during his second of two tours in Kandahar.
At first glance the F and D models may look like they are from a similar family tree, but the actual differences in capability are considerable. The modernized CH-147F Chinook is a multi-mission helicopter with a long-range fuel system that allows it to fly twice as far as standard range models. Its upgraded electrical system provides additional power and redundancy while a fully integrated Common Avionics Architecture System cockpit and Digital Automatic Flight Control System reduce pilot workload and provide greater situational awareness.
While McKenna stopped short of taking us up for a test flight, he did show us the CAE simulators within 450 Squadron’s facility. Inside a massive chamber are three separate simulators: one full-motion, one stationary, and a separate weapon station simulator.
My experience with the simulators was spent in the stationary simulator; the graphic quality and technology level made for an incredibly realistic flight. With McKenna at the controls flying nap-of-the-earth — a type of very low-altitude flight course used by military aircraft to avoid enemy detection and attack in a high-threat environment — tree-skimming manoeuvres. Although I remained motionless, I still suffered that dry mouth, nauseous precursor to full on airsickness — the graphics were that good.
Equally impressive was the fact that the RCAF also invested in a field-deployable simulator, so that Chinook aircrews can retain their skill set on tactics as emergency procedures, even while on lengthy exercises.
To have the combat-lift capability of the Chinook in the relative abundance of 15 airframes is something new for both the RCAF and the combat arms officers who will utilize these assets in a tactical role. Like a starving man suddenly finding himself at a buffet, the ‘famine’ of tactical air assets in the Canadian inventory has become, overnight, a ‘feast’ of capability.