Canada's aging Sea King helicopter fleet has finally begun to be phased out, with the official delivery today of six CH-148 Cyclone helicopters to the Canadian Forces at a base near Halifax.

Defence Minister Jason Kenney said the new choppers are "bigger, faster and more efficient," than the more than 50-year-old Sea Kings. 

Kenney, Public Works and Government Services Minister Diane Finley and Justice Minister Peter MacKay made the announcement at the 12 Wing Shearwater airbase just outside Halifax Friday.

Finley said two more helicopters are expected to be delivered by the end of the year, with the full 28 serving on ships on Canada's east and west coasts by 2021.

The plan to replace the Sea King choppers — which fly from the decks of Canadian warships — is years behind schedule, at least $200 million over budget and beset with technical glitches.

The Cyclones were originally to be delivered in 2008, with deliveries of all 28 helicopters completed by early 2011.

Best anywhere in the world

Despite the criticism, a Halifax military defence analyst had high praise for the aircraft.

Ken Hansen

Halifax military analyst Ken Hansen said the new Cyclone helicopters recently delivered to Halifax-area base are the best anywhere in the world. (CBC)

"The helicopter they've got now is going to be the best anywhere in the world. The software part isn't complete … but the air frame, controls, deck, pilot consoles and all that stuff is state of the art," Ken Hansen said Friday.

Hansen, former co-chair of the Maritime Studies Programme at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., said the Cyclones are "significantly better" than the Sea Kings they will replace. "They have a lot more power range, endurance and cabin space."

Finley dodged the question of whether the Cyclones, beset with glitches, could fly more than 30 minutes without requiring additional gear box lubricant. The gearbox links the helicopter's engines and rotor system and keeps power flowing to the rotors. 

Questions about loss of lubrication to the Cyclone's main gearbox stem from an investigation into a deadly 2009 crash of a helicopter which, like the Cyclone, was built by Sikorsky.

However, when directly asked that same question by another reporter Kenney responded, "Yes," the new helicopters could fly longer than the 30 minutes without requiring additional lubricant.

Gearbox lubricant controversy

Hansen said the gearbox lubricant specification is unnecessary.

"I think it was a bogus requirement to begin with. Nobody else in the world has to do that," he said. "To fly 30 minutes [without lubricant] is a modern engineering miracle."

hi-cyclone-helicopter april 1 2010

The plan to replace the Sea King choppers — which fly from the decks of Canadian warships — is years behind schedule, at least $200 million over budget and beset with technical glitches. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The Cyclones are 10 per cent faster than the Sea King, can fly for 450 kilometres without refuelling and have state-of-the-art navigation and have secure data link capabilities to communicate "with NATO allies," Kenney said. 

The government announced last summer it had finally signed a renegotiated contract with Sikorsky for 28 new CH-148 Cyclone helicopters at a cost of $7.6 billion.

Procurement has had 'tortuous history'

Kenney took the opportunity to criticize Jean Chrétien's Liberal government for cancelling the original replacement program in 1993 — a decision which cost the government $478 million in penalties.

Cyclone helicopters

The RCAF takes delivery of six Cyclone helicopters Friday just outside Halifax. (Tom Murphy/CBC)

"We should have been at this point many, many years ago," said Kenney. "We're back on track." 

Finley said the "complex" procurement process "has had a torturous history."

Hansen said both parties share the blame for the delays.

"The process was hung up with a lot of arguing between the parties … about who's responsible for what," he said. 

A change of government added to the complications and changes to specifications bogged down progress as well, he added.

Meanwhile, Sikiorsky was trying to build an aircraft that would attract a larger market and "to get a good, reliable aircraft into the hands of a reliable operator and to build on its reputation," he said.