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Liberals’ new rescue aircraft could take two days to reach North Pole in disaster operation: documents

Canada’s new search and rescue aircraft could take up to two days to reach survivors of a disaster at the North Pole but the Canadian military doesn’t have a problem with that, according to recently filed court documents.

A legal battle is now underway in the Federal Court in Ottawa over the Liberal government’s $4.7-billion fixed-wing search-and-rescue aircraft program.

The Italian aerospace firm, Leonardo, is angry that its C-27J aircraft, which it contends could reach the North Pole in a single flight from a military base in Winnipeg, was rejected by the federal government.

The winning aircraft, the Airbus C-295, is slower and would take two days to reach a disaster site at the North Pole or similar Arctic locations, Leonardo’s representatives argue.

The company is asking the court to overturn the contract to Airbus and instead award the lucrative deal to Leonardo and its Canadian partners.

In its affidavit, Leonardo alleges the Airbus aircraft fails to meet the government’s basic criteria since it can’t conduct a mission to the outer regions of the military’s allotted rescue area within 13 flying hours.

But that isn’t a problem, according to the latest response to the court from the federal government. In fact, there are no time constraints as long as the aircraft is capable of flying to that location and staying at the scene for an hour and then returning to an airfield, the government argues.

If someone needs help, the last thing you want to do is have an eight- or 10-hour delay

In his affidavit to the court, Brian Lewis, the Defence Department’s deputy project manager for the fixed-wing search-and-rescue aircraft program, outlined a rescue mission to the North Pole. That could be accomplished by leaving Canadian Forces Base Winnipeg and flying to Resolute Bay, Nunavut, he noted. On the second day the crew would leave Resolute Bay and fly to the North Pole. “In other words, if after the aircraft departed from one of its Main Operating Bases and then took two days to reach any of the points at the extreme of the AOR (area of responsibility), that was acceptable,” Lewis noted in the affidavit.

But retired Lt.-Gen. Steve Lucas, the former head of the Royal Canadian Air Force and now a Leonardo consultant, argues that time is of the essence in any search-and-rescue mission. “The issue is, if someone needs help, the last thing you want to do is have an eight- or 10-hour delay, Lucas said in an interview. “That eight or 10 hours could be quite critical.”

Leonardo also believes there will be an increasing number of missions in the far North as climate change continues and the region sees more activity.

But Ramon Martin Alcalde, chief engineer of the Airbus fixed-wing search-and-rescue program, dismissed the Leonardo claims in his response to the court. The C-295, he stated, is designed to fly the distances and speeds required by the government.

Jerome Lessard/Postmedia
Jerome Lessard/PostmediaAn old Royal Canadian Air Force's C-130H

Leonardo is also arguing in court that the Airbus plane does not have a needed backup-power system designed to help the aircraft continue flying in the event it loses one of its two engines. In contrast, the C-27J does have that capability, Leonardo told the court.

But Alcalde said Airbus doesn’t need to add such an auxiliary power unit or make other modifications to its C-295 as the plane has an emergency electrical power system.

He said Leonardo’s legal efforts are aimed at convincing the court to give it access to the sensitive commercial data Airbus used in its Canadian bid.

When the Liberal government awarded the contract to Airbus in December, cabinet ministers highlighted the importance of having the right aircraft for the job. “With this technology, we are giving our women and men in uniform the tools they need to continue to deliver effective and essential search-and-rescue operations,” Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said.

The new planes will replace the RCAF’s 40-year-old Buffalo aircraft and older model C-130s currently assigned to search-and-rescue duties.

The RCAF will receive 16 C-295s. They are expected to be delivered in 2019 but it is unclear what would happen if the Federal Court finds in Leonardo’s favour and overturns the Airbus contract.