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THE ROYAL CANADIAN Air Force's fleet of aircraft for VIPs has been in the news over the last month due to a number of high profile incidents but it's unclear at this point whether that will mean replacement planes will be fast-tracked.

Two of the RCAF CC-144 Challenger aircraft, equipped with older cockpits, will be limited in their operations because of new aviation rules being enforced in 2020.

In October an accident at 8 Wing Trenton led to the sidelining of the WIP-configured Polaris CC-15001, which is used by the prime minister, governor general and other top officials.

On Oct. 19, 2019 while being towed into a hangar at 8 Wing Trenton by contracted maintenance personnel, the Polaris Airbus plane suffered significant structural damage to the nose and right engine cowling, according to the RCAF. The damage happened when the aircraft rolled into the back wall of a hangar.

Engineering teams from Airbus, the original equipment manufacturer of the aircraft, and General Electric, which made the engines, assessed the damages and provided an initial repair plan. As a result, the aircraft is not expected to return to service until August.

"The Royal Canadian Air Force has other aircraft that can be used for WIP transport," RCAF spokesman Lt.-Col. Steve Neta stated in an email. "The RCAF is confident it can meet WIP travel demands during the period where CC-15001 is being repaired."

That may be but at what cost in terms of money and operational effectiveness.

In mid-December the National Post newspaper reported that the federal government was considering speeding up plans to replace at least the Polaris Airbus aircraft.

It is unclear if that meant just the WIP aircraft or the fleet of all five Airbus jets. Two of the aircraft have been configured as refueling planes and the other two are used for troop and other transportation.

Other Department of National Defence officials have raised doubts about any fast-track for the planes. Although replacements for both fleets are on the books that would take place in the mid to late 2020s, DND sources told Esprit de Corps.

For security reasons the prime minister and governor general are prohibited from flying on commercial flights and instead use the RCAF Challenger jets, and the WIP Polaris. The Canadian Armed Forces also use the Challengers to ferry senior staff, medevac and other high priority assignments.

But the Challenger and Polaris fleets are aging.

The Department of National Defence bought the five Airbuses in the early 1990s.

The WIP Airbus, originally purchased for then Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was dubbed the "flying Taj Mahal" by then Liberal Party leader, and later Prime Minister, Jean Chretien.

The WIP Airbus cost taxpayers $53 million to purchase and another $3.5 million for the installation of the VIP extras. Mulroney never used the plane because the VIP renovations were not finished until after he left office.

The VVIP Airbus jet, outfitted with 93 seats, has an office and shower. The aircraft is also equipped with an "entertainment area" and special communications system. Esprit de Corps has seen the inside of the WIP aircraft and can confirm it is not a "Taj Mahal" or even close to that. As noted by one RCAF officer, the VIP facilities are more akin to a recreational vehicle as opposed to the more elaborate amenities found on the U.S. President's Air Force One jet.

The Liberal government tried unsuccessfully in 1994 to sell the plane. Chretien, when prime minister, refused to fly on the WIP Airbus Polaris and instead used the Challenger and other Polaris transport jets.

The RCAF operates four CC-144 Challenger aircraft. But the two oldest CC-144S were bought in 1982 and 1985, before their manufacturer, Canadair, became Bombardier.

The planes, Challenger 601 models, are not equipped with the ADS-B system, which enhances flight safety and efficiency and allows for satellite tracking of aircraft. ADS-B navigation will be mandatory from 2020 in the United States and Europe.

The other two RCAF Challengers, 604 models acquired in 2002, are equipped with ADS-B. Those aircraft were built at Bombardier's plant in St. Laurent, Que.

"As new airspace regulations come into effect the CC144 fleet is becoming less operationally effective. In order to respond to expanding operational restrictions a number of avionics upgrades are required," a RCAF briefing note obtained by the CBC last year pointed out. It stated that Bombardier doesn't provide upgrades to cockpit instruments in older 601 models and that no "economically viable solution currently exists."

Purchasing new model Challengers would have the RCAF fleet all the same variant, noted the RCAF in its briefing. "This option consolidates the fleet to one aircraft type," the RCAF added. "Cost savings in the form of avionics upgrades, sparing and crew/ maintenance training could be realized."

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said in 2018 that various options for the RCAF transport fleet are being worked on.

But the purchase of VIP jets is a politically charged acquisition. The NDP stated in 2018 they would support the acquisition of new Challenger jets.

But the Conservatives are another matter.

The Conservatives have complained that having the RCAF continuing to operate aging Polaris Airbus aircraft harms Canada's reputation and that the older Challengers are quite limited in performance.

But Conservative MPs have also indicated they could try to score some political points against the Liberals if new VIPs jets are bought. They would highlight the fact that the Liberals bought VIP jets before following through with the acquisition of new fighter jets for the RCAF.

Aerospace workers in Quebec have what they believe is at least part of the solution for the federal government--replace the Challenger fleet with Canadian-made aircraft. "This should not only be seen as an expense, but also as an investment," said David Chartrand, Quebec Coordinator of the Machinists' Union. "By ordering new aircraft manufactured here, the federal government would choose to invest in our economy, while promoting the maintenance and creation of good jobs in Quebec. In fact, by creating economic activity on its territory, the Trudeau government would find Itself recovering some of the money invested in taxes."

Ottawa could also order Global aircraft, larger jets built by Bombardier with a greater range, the union noted. A brand-new Bombardier Challenger 605 costs about $42 million, while the top end Global aircraft price Is over $95 million.

Caption: ABOVE RIGHT: A RCAF CT-144 in flight. Changes in aviation regulations in 2020 will limit operations of the older Challenger jets. (Canadian armed forces)

Caption: ABOVE RIGHT: The Canadian government will have to decide whether to fast-track the replacement of the CC-150 Polaris fleet. (CANADIAN ARMED FORCES)

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Author:Pugliese, David
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2020
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