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Putting a new spin on: search and rescue.

One frigid February night in 2004, a 442 Squadron Cormorant took off from 19 Wing Comox to recover four stranded mariners. Their 79-foot fishing vessel Hope Bay had capsized just past midnight some 56 nautical miles north of Vancouver Island, handing the four seamen over to the violent, icy waters of Queen Charlotte Sound. As with any other search and rescue mission, a quick response was crucial.

By the time the helicopter crew showed up, a fixed wing Buffalo aircraft had already been on the scene for an hour awaiting their arrival after having homed in on the site via the boat's distress beacon. While maintaining a 100-foot hover, with visual aid provided by strobe lights and flares dropped from the Buffalo, the Cormorant was able to recover the one survivor and two of the deceased crew members from the capsized trawler that night. Because of low fuel, the SAR crew had to return the following day for the fourth body.

The Canadian Forces are responsible for roughly 1,100 search and rescue (SAR) missions each year. Most of the time, these involve aeronautical response, primarily provided by rotary-wing aircraft--meaning the air force's CH-149 Cormorant and CH-146 Griffon helicopters.

But often, as was the case during the rescue described above, fixed-wing aircraft such as the CC-115 Buffalo, CP-140 Aurora or CC-130 Hercules are also deployed to provide long-range search capabilities and immediate assistance to those in distress. While these aircraft are said to meet the Canadian Forces' fixed wing search and rescue (FWSAR) requirement, their role might more accurately be described as fixed wing search and assist. Specializing in fast-dash response but lacking the ability to hover, fixed wing aircraft have more or less had to leave the rescue part of the job to their rotary-winged brethren.

However, this might be about to change.

With recent advancements in tilt-rotor technology, the Department of National Defence is exploring the possibility of combining fixed wing and rotary wing SAR capabilities into one versatile platform: an aircraft that can cover long ranges in record time then switch gears mid-air to slow down and hover or make a vertical landing. If 442 Squadron had such a contraption at its disposal on that fateful February night in 2004, the SAR team might have been able to start recovering the Hope Bay crew a lot sooner.

Some say this is still a pipe dream. Yet, with many of Canada's traditional SAR aircraft coming to the end of their service life, at the same time this revolutionary new technology is gaining recognition for its many potential operational applications, while others concede that it may very well be time for defence analysis and procurement officials to start thinking differently about how the air force approaches its search and rescue responsibility.


"Take a box that's roughly six feet by six feet by twenty four feet that hovers and goes 300 miles an hour--what can you do with that? Let your imagination run wild."

This is how Bob Carrese of Bell-Boeing's tilt-rotor team describes the V-22 Osprey, a joint-service, medium-lift, multi-mission tilt-rotor aircraft currently available in three configurations: the Combat Assault and Assault Support MV-22, which is currently deployed by the US Marine Corps and the US Army; the long-range special operations CV-22 being used by US Special Operations Command (US SOCOM); and the US Navy HV-22, for combat search and rescue, special warfare and fleet logistic support.

The V-22 program, which began in the 1980s, was approved for full-rate production in September 2005. The MV-22 achieved initial operating capability in June 2007 and left for its first operational deployment in Iraq in September of that year. While operating capability for the CV-22 was officially achieved in March 2009, a CV-22 crew actually flew its first search and recovery mission from the Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico in October 2007.

Roughly a year ago, the Canadian government began to seriously explore the possibility of acquiring the aircraft, sending the folks at Bell-Boeing a letter of interest (LOI) requesting information about the V-22 Osprey's SAR capabilities. Carrese says the V-22 is also being looked at by several other potential customers as a search and rescue platform.

After appearing before the Standing Committee on National Defence in November to talk about the V-22 as a possible replacement for Canada's current fixed wing search and rescue (FWSAR) aircraft, Carrese spoke to Esprit de Corps about his mission to educate the world about the advantages of tilt-rotor technology.

"This is a paradigm shift. Nobody likes change," he says, explaining why militaries might be hesitant to embrace the V-22.

"This is a new technology. It's not only disruptive to the acquisition system, it's disruptive to the way we think about flying, to the way we do missions, just like helicopters were disruptive 40 years ago."


Integrating new technology into the defence system is no simple undertaking, says Dean Black, a retired lieutenant-colonel with 30 years of experience as a tactical helicopter pilot and senior defence analyst in the Canadian Air Force. Echoing the wisdom of famous economist Joseph Schumpeter, Black cautions that every innovation is a creative destruction: when you welcome a new idea, you destroy everything it replaces.

"It's the same with any innovation," he says. "Once you put it into force it will effectively destroy all kinds of things. The V-22 as an example would render less useful the conventional kinds of aircraft that people have worked with--for some, their entire career--and it is very, very difficult for some people to change, to cope with change. And it's very, very difficult for some budgets to cope with the changes required."

Defence officials have to consider how an acquisition such as the V-22 might affect costs related to people, things and ideas, says Black. With people, training is the main concern. By things he means the added equipment that might be required to accommodate any new technology. And as for the ideas, that encompasses the need for new policy, any adjustment to doctrines, existing manuals and so on.

"If you discover that the financial and other implications of purchasing a conventional helicopter are going to be less expensive, less of an implication than something like a V-22, then you strike a balance," Black explains. "When procurement planners look at this, they're quite cognisant of the need to capture all the costs, the tangibles and intangibles that come with new equipment."


With the V-22, Bell-Boeing is offering the Canadian Forces a best value offer, says Carrese.

"We are not cheap. If you're looking for the low-cost option we're not it."

He challenges defence procurement planners to ask themselves: "Do you want new car smell for another 30 years and really not improve the capability much, or do you really want to have the opportunity to save more lives, do things differently?"

"There's an opportunity here to really influence the lifesaving capability," he says.

But the cost factor could be a deal breaker for Canadian defence officials. It certainly was in the past.

During his tenure as the Defence department's assistant deputy minister (materiel), Alan Williams says he remembers the V-22 was having problems and procurement planners felt it had capabilities the air force didn't need. "And cost would have been enormous."

Angus Watt, former chief of the air staff, says the V-22 program is still too high risk for Canada's search and rescue needs. "There would be operational advantages because you could replace both the fixed wing and the rotary in that role but I think the advantages would be outweighed by the uncertainty of the cost structure," he says. "I would like to see several generations of this aircraft prove itself before we even start to think of purchasing it."

With the current mix of fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft providing effective SAR coverage, Watt says there's no pressing need to bring in new technology.

"It's a myth that the military likes to buy all the latest and greatest and fanciest technology because it looks sexy," he says, explaining that what the military really looks for is technology that has had success being used day in and day out.

"It's an interesting proposal. Give it a generation or two and maybe we'll be interested in it then. In the meantime, I think we should stick to the proven combination of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft."

Black, on the other hand, isn't so quick to shoot down the possibility that the V-22 might be able to successfully make its case.

"Now that there are a certain number operational and I think the R&D costs have been absorbed by the United States, it becomes a product that might be affordable for Canada."

What remains to be seen is whether the air force can come up with a statement of requirements flexible enough to allow the cutting-edge V-22 a fair shot at competing alongside fixed wing aircraft.

Carrese says in some ways he wishes Bell-Boeing could compete against a contender like an X2, which is a twin-rotor helicopter currently being developed by Sikorsky.

"Then we'd finally be able to say write a requirement that says 250 knots instead of 150," he says. "If they keep dumbing down requirements we'll always have way too much performance."

According to Lt. Lisa Evong of Air Force Public Affairs, the statement of requirements for the FWSAR project should be released any day now (at time of writing it was not yet available) and tilt-rotor platforms will indeed be considered along with conventional fixed wing contenders.

"The air force will continue to assess all such options as we work with industry," she told Esprit de Corps.

So stay tuned! We'll get back to you with more developments as this twice-stalled procurement supposedly continues down the fast track.
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Title Annotation:EYE ON INDUSTRY
Author:Wasser, Marlee
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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