COLUMN: Helicopter deal may prove Tories have run dry, writes Peter Pickersgill

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It seems the Government of Canada has at long last decided to go ahead with the purchase of a fleet of new Sikorsky helicopters for the military.

Peter Pickersgill

These 28 aircraft are to replace the still-existing 50-year-old Sea Kings. The elastic bands that Sea King flight crews must wind up to drive the rotor for lift-off are no longer available from the manufacturer, so something had to be done.

The need for new copters had been identified as far back as the 1980s by the Brian Mulroney government, and a deal was signed in 1986 to buy Augusta-Westland EH-101’s. The EH in the name probably sold the government of the day on signing the purchase agreement. It was the answer to the oft-repeated question, “When are you guys going to get some new helicopters, EH?”

But in politics and defence-spending the only constant is change. Thus, in 1993, when a Liberal majority crushed the Kim Campbell Tories, prime minister Jean Chretien, claiming the aircraft were too expensive, cancelled the EH-101’s, declaring with a flourish of his pen, “No more helicopters ... signed Chretien.”

Now you know why they call them choppers.

Well, no more Mulroney choppers anyway. But as the Sea King elastic bands grew weaker and weaker, the Liberals realized they had to find a replacement.

So it was that on Nov. 23, 2004 the Liberal government’s Ministry of Defence signed a deal with Sikorsky for 28 helicopters, the first of which was to be delivered in January 2009. The cost was $1.8 billion. The aircraft were specifically designed for flight over water, for taking off and landing from ships, and most important of all, they had to have a 30-minute run dry guarantee. What that means is that if, for whatever reason, the oil in the transmission casing leaks away entirely, the copter can continue to fly for 30 minutes before the engine shuts down.

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are all too familiar with the importance of those 30 minutes. If Cougar Helicopter’s Flight 491, a Sikorsky S-92A, the civilian version of the Sikorsky choppers Canada is going to buy, had possessed the 30-minute run dry guarantee, it might not have gone down into the North Atlantic with a loss of 17 souls on March 12, 2009. The 30-minute run dry guarantee might have given it time to reach shore and land safely, or at least manage to ditch as gently as possible in the water with a chance of being rescued. Neither of those things happened because Cougar Flight 491 didn’t have that capacity.

Nor will the new helicopters the Harper government is planning to buy.

Though a 30-minute run dry guarantee was clearly stated in the initial 2004 deal between Sikorsky and the Government of Canada, it had disappeared from the text of the deal announced recently.

When questioned about this disappearance, the Defence Ministry spokesperson stated that in negotiations between our government and Sikorsky, the 30-minute run dry guarantee had been sacrificed to keep escalating costs under control. Anyway, she added, the chance that this crucial safety feature would ever be needed was “very remote."

Tell that to the families of the the 17 victims lost aboard Cougar 491.

It is true that governments need to negotiate hard when spending our money. We’d like to think they would do so wisely as well. At the outset in 2004, the 28 new helicopters were to cost Canada $1.8 billion. By last week that number had ballooned to $7.6 billion, of which $1.7 billion has already been spent.

My wife Lisa, a savvy observer of what’s going on, admits that getting her head around the huge sums of money quoted in news stories is often difficult. She has developed a measuring stick to help provide some perspective.

In 2010, Prime Minister Stephen Harper hosted the G8 Summit of world leaders in Toronto. The overall bill for this two-day shindig, including the obligatory riot, turned out to be approximately $2 billion. Now Lisa measures everything in those units. She refers to them as Stephen Harper Weekends.

Back in 2004, the cost of the 28 choppers was a mere .9 of a Stephen Harper Weekend. That included the life-saving 30-minute run dry guarantee.

"Today, the cost of our brand new helicopters, at $ 7.6 billion, would amount to 3.8 Stephen Harper Weekends. That’s without the 30-minute run dry guarantee.

Our military will soon be operating these helicopters in our name. Saving money by eliminating the crucial safety provided by a 30-minute run dry guarantee is a disgraceful decision by the Government of Canada. There is no number of Stephen Harper Weekends that can compensate for the loss of a single human life that may result.

Any government that thinks so has already run dry.

— Peter Pickersgill is an artist and writer in Salvage, Bonavista Bay. He can be reached by email at the following: pickersgill@mac.com

Organizations: Ministry of Defence

Geographic location: Canada, North Atlantic, Toronto Bonavista Bay

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