As the Conservative government mulls whether to scrap its bogged-down purchase of Sikorsky Cyclone helicopters to replace the fleet of aging Sea Kings, the NDP is raising fresh questions about whether those new helicopters are capable of doing the job.
The federal government concluded meetings with three helicopter manufacturers this week and is expected to decide by the end of the month whether to scrap its multibillion-dollar Sikorsky contract and choose a rival competitor to build new helicopters, CBC News has learned.
That decision has the potential to add further delays to a nearly decade-old procurement.
But there are deep concerns Sikorsky may not be able to deliver a helicopter that fully meets the government's requirements.
That fear prompted the government to canvass other helicopter manufacturers, Eurocopter and AugustaWestland, for information on some of their aircraft. Sikorsky itself was also asked to present information as part of what the government termed a "data-gathering" exercise.
CBC News has learned that phase is over and the government is now analyzing its data.
The government analysis will be conducted at Public Works, which manages the Sikorsky contract. Industry sources say it will include a further analysis of an independent consultant's report on Sikorsky's ability to provide a maritime helicopter that is fully compliant with the government's 2004 order.
NDP questions 'dry-run standard'
Sikorsky missed its initial deadline and was granted an extension, but there are still questions about whether it can deliver a chopper that meets some of the government's most rigorous standards.
One of those requirements is the ability to fly for 30 minutes without any lubricant in its main gearbox (a rough civilian equivalent would be driving on the highway for 30 minutes with no oil to lubricate your engine).
This capability is particularly important for a maritime helicopter, which might need to fly some distance over water before being able to find a place to land.
NDP defence critic Jack Harris this week formally asked Defence Minister Rob Nicholson to confirm that Sikorsky's Cyclone helicopters for Canada meet this 30-minute run-dry standard.
Sikorsky calls the Cyclone helicopter the H-92. It's a heavily upgraded military version of its civilian S-92 helicopter.
In 2009, an S-92 flown by St. John's-based Cougar Helicopters crashed into the Atlantic off Newfoundland, killing 17 people. The helicopter was making a dash back to land after indicators showed a problem.
Harris is a Newfoundland MP who says that crash has had a lasting effect on the people of his St. John's East riding.
"Can you confirm that the run-dry requirement has already been developed for the CH-148 Cyclone?" Harris asks. "If not, can you confirm that this is still a requirement under the [statement of requirements] for all CH-148 Cyclones procured by the government, and that this will be delivered by Sikorsky?"
In his letter, Harris said an investigation attributed the Cougar crash to the chopper's "inability to run dry for 30 minutes."
"The [Transportation Safety Board] determined that the S92-A had suffered a mechanical failure of the titanium studs in the main gearbox causing a total loss of lubricant," Harris wrote. "As a result the helicopter did not have the capacity for operate for 30 minutes and crashed into the sea."
"I think you will agree that the requirement of the run-dry capacity for all CH-148 Cyclones is essential."
Asked by CBC News if the Cyclone has a 30-minute run-dry main gearbox, a spokesperson for Public Works replied in an email: "We will not be commenting on technical requirements or capabilities as Sikorsky has yet to deliver a contractually compliant helicopter to Canada."
Harris said his questions arise in the context of speculation the government might rework its contract with Sikorsky and accept choppers that meet lower standards.
Sikorsky has already built several so-called interim helicopters that meet some but not all of the government requirements, but the government has not yet accepted those helicopters into its fleet. The military is said to want the interim choppers, but Public Works won't allow it to accept them because they do not meet the contract's requirements.
Sikorsky itself won't say whether its choppers meet the run-dry requirement.
"Per our contractual agreements with the government, we cannot publicly discuss any technical aspects of the program," Sikorsky spokesman Paul Jackson said in an e-mail.
Earlier this fall, CBC News reported the government had received an external consultant's report that concluded Sikorsky can deliver a capable helicopter to the Canadian Forces if given the time.
The Hitachi Consultants report also suggested the government ought to reconsider some of its requirements in order to allow Sikorsky to produce a compliant helicopter.