Canada’s aging fleet of coast guard helicopters is being replaced by a newer, larger and faster model of chopper capable of hauling heavier loads. The Conservative government awarded the up to $172-million contract on Monday to Texas-based rotorcraft manufacturer Bell Helicopter, which will begin delivering 15 light-twin class helicopters next year.

The deal was a sole-source contract, meaning there were no other bidders for supplying the coast guard with new helicopters. That didn’t mean there weren't other manufacturers who had expressed interest.

Here are a few key things to know in order to better understand the new coast guard contract and the company that won the deal:

1. The helicopters will replace 1980s technology

Bell 429 helicopter specs:

  • 280 km/h top speed
  • Seats up to seven passengers
  • 1.5-metre side doors
  • 3.7-cubic-metre cabin compartment

Source: Bell Helicopter website

The Canadian Coast Guard currently operates MBB BO-105s manufactured by Eurocopter Group, a company that is now known as Airbus Helicopters.

“Those helicopters were delivered between 1983 and 1987,” said Mike Reyno, the Kitchener, Ont.-based owner and publisher of the global helicopter trade publication Vertical Magazine.

By contrast, the model 429s from Bell Helicopters that are set to replace the BO-105s are equipped with the latest technology available in that class of helicopter, Reyno said.

Among the new features lacking in the BO-105s is an autopilot and stabilization system, digital fuel controls and modern “instrument flight rules” capability allowing a pilot to fly through adverse weather and near-zero visibility solely by referencing the cockpit’s instruments.

“Basically it’s like going from steam-driven, analog technology to the current generation. It’s the most modern helicopter offered by Bell Helicopter on the commercial side,” Reyno said.

2. Firm awarded the contract has a key Canadian factory

Bell Helicopter is headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, and was founded in 1935 as the Bell Aircraft Corporation. It has since become one of a handful of major North American commercial helicopter manufacturers, employing about 1,900 people at its plant in Quebec.

Bell Helicopter Textron Canada has been based in Mirabel, Que., for the past 28 years.

“We actually made well over 4,000 helicopters in Mirabel since then, so there’s heavy Canadian content,” said Barry Kohler, president of Bell Helicopter Canada.

The Mirabel factory builds four commercial helicopter models, including the Bell 429.

During Monday’s contract announcement, Fisheries Minister Gail Shea and Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel lauded the deal as a boon for Canada’s aerospace industry and the Quebec workforce.

3. Bell Helicopter accused of getting an unfair bidding advantage

Rival firms Airbus Helicopters Canada and Agusta Westland initially competed for the coast guard contract. Both companies later pulled their bids, however, alleging that Transport Canada’s bidding process was rigged to favour Bell Helicopter.

Bell Helicopter 429 awarded contract

Bell Helicopter has been awarded a contract worth up to $172 million for its model 429 helicopters. (Courtesy: Bell Helicopter)

At issue was Transport Canada’s decision to grant Bell Helicopter a weight exemption, which allowed for a 225-kilogram increase in the Bell 429’s “maximum gross weight” — a measure of the load a helicopter can carry while still being able to take off. While its competitors are limited to a maximum gross weight of 3,175 kilograms, the 429 can carry 3,400 kilograms.

Critics said the deal unfairly put the 429 in a different safety category.

The key consideration is that the added weight-carrying capacity should not compromise safety.

In the commercial helicopter industry, Reyno said, “weight is king.”

“The more you can carry internally or externally on a hook, the better off you are. You can carry more gas, you have a greater lifting capability, it could be safer,” he said.

Bell Helicopter’s Kohler said several countries have accepted the manufacturer’s request for a higher weight limit. While the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority has not, it is considering revising whether the weight limit should be revised, Reyno said.

Airbus Helicopters Canada was known as Eurocopter when it built the coast guard’s existing fleet of choppers 25 years ago in Fort Erie, Ont.

4. The maximum weight controversy may lead to a court battle

A lawsuit launched by Airbus Helicopters Canada against Public Works and Government Services Canada is before the Federal Court.

The company issued a statement on Monday saying it “maintains that the government's request for proposals for replacement of the Canadian Coast Guard fleet of light-lift helicopters was biased to favour one manufacturer and consequently resulted in a sole-source tender.”

The statement adds that “Transport Canada's awarding of a special weight exemption to Bell Helicopter in 2011 created an unfair competitive advantage and contributed to this [request for proposal] attracting only one bid.”

Bell Helicopter Canada’s president wouldn’t comment on the litigation, but said the evaluation process was well-documented and that a rigorous evaluation found the 429 to pass all safety regulations.

Vertical Magazine’s Reyno noted that the exemption was granted in 2011, “long before the requirement for the coast guard came out.”

Documents from the Airbus court filing include an email from 2010 in which a civil aviation directorate official writes that the “idea [for an exemption] first came up about six months ago when the 429 was being considered a candidate for the new coast guard helicopter.”

5. These coast guard choppers aren't intended mainly for search and rescue

The Bell 429’s larger payload and cargo capacity will make it easier for the coast guard to do its work, according to Bell Helicopter, but that doesn’t mean pilots will be flying them mainly for search and rescue operations.

“Search and rescue is a secondary role for the coast guard,” Reyno said. “That kind of primary mission falls to the Royal Canadian Air Force.”

The Canadian Coast Guard is more involved in logistical support, maritime patrol, environmental research, flying scientists to remote locations, and helping to replenish supplies at lighthouses.