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In Depth

Canada's Military

Requiem for the Sea King

Last Updated February, 2006

Sikorsky S-92. Photo courtesy Sikorski Aircraft Corp.
They are known as the "ancient" Sea Kings, the "geriatric" Sea Kings, the "venerable" Sea Kings. They have been called "flying coffins." Purchased with considerable fanfare by the federal government in 1963, when they turned heads with their impressive exploits, the Sea Kings are now a sick, aging fleet, with pieces literally falling out of the skies. Canada bought 41 of the single-rotor Sea Kings, technically known as the Sikorsky CH-124 Sea King. Twenty-eight of them remain in service, and those still flying are often hit by flameouts, engine stalls, generator failures and gearbox problems. Pilots have died flying them, falling into oceans, crashing into muskeg – more so the older they get. After the federal government renewed the bidding process in 1999 to replace the fleet, builders around the world jockeyed for position to win the contract.

In the end, Canada chose Sikorsky to replace the Sea Kings. In July 2004, newly appointed Defence Minister Bill Graham announced that Ottawa will spend $3.2 billion on 28 Sikorsky S-92 helicopters, to be known as Cyclones. The medium-lift utility helicopter was inspired by the design of the company's Black Hawk and Seahawk helicopters.

The Sea Kings were supposed to have been retired by 2000, but the air force prolonged their life by spending $80 million to keep them flying until 2005. The Sea Kings require 30 hours of maintenance for every hour of flight, and they are unavailable for operations 40 per cent of the time.

The government must now spend more money to keep the Sea Kings in the air. The contract for the new Sikorsky helicopters calls for the first air craft to be delivered on Nov. 30, 2008.

"The technologies on the aircraft are showing their age," said Col. Brian Akitt in December 2001. Akitt was the commanding officer of the remaining fleet of 28 Sea Kings based at Shearwater and Patricia Bay in British Columbia.

In their glory days, the Sea Kings were mighty impressive, a source of national pride. The Canadians who operated them were esteemed around the world as inventive, brilliant and daring.

The helicopters were designed – albeit with 1950s technology – primarily as submarine-hunters. Canadian navy pilots pioneered dazzling new anti-submarine techniques, with the Sea King as much a star as the pilots flying them.

The Sea Kings are big, weighing nearly nine tonnes, and conventional military wisdom was aircraft carriers could provide the only suitable platforms for them. It was also conventional wisdom that they could not work at night. The Canadians experimented with smaller ships as platforms for the Sea Kings, giving them greater flexibility, and allowing them to hunt subs with sonar, radar and torpedoes day and night.

When the Canadians suggested Sea Kings could be launched and land on a destroyer, navies reacted by calling them "crazy Canucks." But they made it work, inventing a "hauldown" technique – the Canadians nicknamed it the "beartrap" – essentially a vertical winch that centred the Sea King over the destroyer – often heaving in the raucous North Atlantic – and the chopper pilot then flew down the hauldown and landed on a rolling surface about the size of a double-car driveway.

Lee Myrhaugen, a former air force colonel who logged 4,000 hours aboard Sea Kings, told John Ward of the Canadian Press, "The rest of the world stood back, awestruck with the notion of putting such a large helicopter aboard such a relatively small ship."

The first ship outfitted this way was HMCS Sauguenay, a 2,263-ton St.-Laurent-class destroyer escort, in 1967.

The sad state of Canada's Sea Kings reflects as much political intrigue and bungling as anything to do with helicopter design, engineering and performance. Their working life simply has been extended embarrassingly beyond their capabilities. The Sea Kings may be dangerous now, but they have been workhorses, saving lives at sea and serving around the world in Somalia, the Persian Gulf and Adriatric Sea, and in the fall of 1999 transporting troops and supplies in East Timor.

European Helicopter Industries EH-101. Photo courtesy Westland Helicopters Ltd.
The Tories tried to buy new helicopters in the early 1990s, after a decade of severe military cost-cutting and, no small matter, the end of the Cold War. In 1992, the Tories announced they would spend $4.8 billion to buy 50 EH-101 helicopters from the Anglo-Italian consortium European Helicopter Industries Ltd. These were state-of-the-art choppers, the best in the world.

Then came the 1993 federal election campaign, when Jean Chrétien and his Liberals attacked the Tory plan as wasteful, calling the EH-101 a "Cadillac" helicopter. When the Liberals won and Chrétien became prime minister one of his first acts was to scrap the Tory deal, an act that cost the Canadian government nearly $500 million in cancellation fees.

But Chrétien's government, and that of Prime Minister Paul Martin after him, faced mounting pressure from the military to replace the Sea Kings.

More than a decade after the Tories announced the purchase of 50 EH-101s, the Liberals announced their more modest purchase of 28 S-92s from Sikorsky. Defence Minister Bill Graham called the Cyclones, "the right helicopter for the Canadian Forces at the best price for Canadians."

Many in the military, though, said they would have preferred the EH-101 Cormorants to replace the Sea Kings. The Canadian Forces purchased 15 Cormorants in 1998 to replace the twin-rotor Labrador helicopters in search-and-rescue missions. Some in the military said having the same model for its maritime fleet would have made it easier to train technicians, air crews and maintenance workers.

The glory days of the Sea Kings are in the distant past, yesterday's heroes, now burdened more with a reputation for embarrassing crashes than for saving lives or finding submarines.

FACTS AND FIGURES - CH-124 SEA KING Length 22.12 m Wingspan 60 ft Height 5.13m Weight 8,680 kg Power Two 1,500 Shaft Horsepower General Electric T-58-100 turboshafts Speed 280 km/h Ceiling 3,077 m Range 648 km Load 2,250 kg Equipment Forward Looking Infrared Radar (FLIR), Passive/Active Sonar Armament Mk 46 Mod V homing torpedoes, self-defence machine gun Crew 2 pilots, 1 navigator, 1 airborne electronic sensor operator Year(s) procured 1963 to 1969 Quantity in CF 28 Location(s) 12 Wing Shearwater, N.S Victoria, B.C. International Airport. Although one of the oldest Aircraft in Canada's airforce, the Sea King is also one of its busiest. It has seen service in a variety of international and domestic roles in recent years including the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Yugoslavia, East Timor, Manitoba Floods, Swiss Air disaster and boarding of GTS Katie. Courtesy DND


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