Politics

Public Works receives 6 expressions of interest in Sea Kings set for retirement

There have been six informal expressions of interest from countries, or organizations, that might be interested in buying Canada's old Sea King helicopters. According to the air force, 16 of the 28 helicopters - originally purchased in the 1960s - have been retired.

Ex-Sea King pilot says 'handsome' helicopter has useful life after 54 years thanks to excellent maintenance

A Canadian soldier jumps into Halifax harbour from a Sea King helicopter during a 2013 training exercise. The government has received six expressions from interest from countries, or organizations, willing to buy the 1960s vintage choppers once they are fully retired. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

It seems the air force's venerable CH-124 Sea King helicopters will find life after retirement from the Canadian military following six informal expressions of interest from either countries or organizations interested in buying them.

While Public Works will not reveal the potential bidders, it is known that India is one country that might want to keep flying the aircraft.

An official in Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's office confirmed on background that the matter was raised in one of the meetings during his visit to India last spring.

The Indian navy already flies Sea Kings and is reportedly in urgent need of helicopters, according to the Financial Express, one of the country's business publications.

The introduction of the CH-148 Cyclone helicopters has allowed the Canadian air force to take 16 of its 28 Sea Kings out of service, but spokesperson Capt. Trevor Reid said they have not yet been turned over to Public Works for disposal.

The federal government began soliciting interest in selling the old helicopters in the fall of 2015. Spokesperson Pierre-Alain Bujold said National Defence has also not formally served notice that it intends to sell the helicopters.

Once that takes place there is only a limited number of buyers who would qualify.

"Due to the controlled nature of military assets, [Public Works] does not sell these assets to individual persons," said Bujold in an email. "Assets are sold exclusively to pre-approved foreign governments, original equipment manufacturers, and their licensed representatives."

The last Sea King is slated to be taken out of service in December 2018.  

The U.K. has advertised its used Sea Kings for £150,000  ($252,000 Cdn).

A handsome helicopter

The first of the anti-submarine warfare choppers arrived at the military air base in Shearwater, N.S., in August 1963 and one former pilot said no one should be surprised that there's still life in the old bones.

Retired colonel Lee Myrhaugen, who was on the first Sea King training course in 1964 and later served as an instructor, said the helicopters have been thoroughly refurbished over the years and well maintained.

The Canadian taxpayer has spent a fortune over the last five decades keeping them in top condition, he said.

"Every rivet, every panel, every frame member has been changed except the serial number," said Myrhaugen. "I am speaking from a very prejudiced point of view, but it is still one of the most handsome utilitarian aircraft ever built."

Retired colonel Lee Myrhaugen, who was on the first Sea King training course in 1964 and later served as an instructor, said the old helicopters have been thoroughly refurbished over the years and well maintained. (CBC News)

The Sea Kings may no longer be front combat aircraft, but Myrhaugen said they could be used for search and rescue, and even troop transport.

The retirement of the Sea Kings has been political issue in this country for more than a quarter century, ever since the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien cancelled their first replacement, the EH-101 in 1993.

Cyclones arriving

A new helicopter — the CH-148 Cyclone — was eventually ordered in 2004, but it has had development problems which have meant long delays.

As of Oct. 18, the air force had received and accepted 13 Cyclones and there are 15 more still on order from the U.S, manufacturer, Sikorsky.

"The aircraft currently at 12 Wing [Shearwater, N.S.] are being used for training and operational testing, as well as conversion training," said Reid in an email.

A CH-148 Cyclone maritime helicopter is seen during a training exercise at 12 Wing Shearwater near Dartmouth, N.S., on Wednesday, March 4, 2015. The air force says it will now be 2025 before the Cyclone fleet reaches full operating capability. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

An initial cadre of pilots have converted over from the Sea Kings and are now training the first operational crews, he added.

It will be spring of next year before the Cyclone reaches what the air force calls initial operating capability, which means it meets minimum deployment standards.

Reid said a Sea King detachment is currently overseas with HMCS Charlottetown and another one recently took part in the separate humanitarian relief mission involving HMCS St. John's in the Caribbean.   

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.