Winston Churchill famously described the Soviet Union as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

Good thing the esteemed wartime leader never caught a glimpse of the continuing drama surrounding Canada’s quest for a new fixed-wing search and rescue aircraft. Intended to replace the Royal Canadian Air Force’s fleet of CC-115 Buffalos on the West Coast and the selection of CC-130 Hercules that perform the same search and rescue job in the rest of Canada, the quest for a new aircraft is now in its (at least) eighth year.

The Buffalos are by this point nearly 50 years old, and as of 2011, only six of the original fifteen remained airworthy; the Hercules are a collection of what are known as “legacy” (i.e., old) models, including C-130Es that date back to the early 1960s. This to cover not just three very long sea coasts and the Great Lakes but vast areas of the Canadian Arctic.

While major military purchases can often generate controversy, and even arguments about the need for the purchase at all, no one disputes that Canada needs a new fixed-wing search and rescue aircraft. But to date no purchase is in sight; thus far the government hasn’t issued an RFP.

What do we know? Industry Canada does say that the aircraft must meet the 100 percent industrial benefits goal expected of major Canadian defence purchases (although it would be noteworthy only if this requirement were waived). The Department of National Defence has said that new “FWSAR aircraft shall be capable of carrying out all FWSAR missions currently performed by the existing fleets,” a straightforward, if vaguely broad, requirement. In addition, the future aircraft will be equipped with advanced sensor equipment (radar, obviously, but also infra-red technology capable of detecting people by their body heat in darkness or extreme weather conditions.) And the government has held several consultations with industry in the past year, though it is not sharing the results of those publically yet. That is pretty much it.

But if we don’t know what they want – for what the Ottawa Citizen reports will be an initial $1.55 billion price tag – we do know what is available. Five aircraft look to be likely contenders at this point.

Alenia C-27J Spartan
At one point, the Spartan was pegged as the only “viable bidder” in the RCAF’s search for a new FWSAR aircraft. In part, according to UBC political scientist Michael Byers in piece he wrote for the National Post, because of questions of interoperability – the United States Army was considering purchasing 77 of the aircraft. This contract, however, was subsequently cancelled when only about two dozen had been delivered after the U.S. Air Force took over the purchase.

This two-engine medium transport features the same Pratt and Whitney engines and cockpit configuration as the C-130J Hercules, earning it the nickname “Baby Herc.” Pointing to its manoeuvrability and relatively low cost, company spokesman Jim Metsner says, “we think the plane … has great characteristics.” Perhaps wary after seeming to have the project in the bag, Metzner avoids specifics, adding only that “we have a team that’s dedicated to winning this thing.”

Bell Boeing V-22
Not an initial pick, the hybrid Osprey has been discussed as a possible selection recently. The versatile Osprey can hover and land like a helicopter while able to fly like a conventional aircraft, thanks to having its large twin props mounted on pivoting nacelles on the end of each wing. According to Cathy Anthony, the Boeing capture team leader on this joint project with Bell, the Osprey can “cruise at speed of 265 knots and has a range of 1,000 nautical miles,” which matches other prospective SAR craft.

Osprey had initial teething troubles, although these have now been overcome, but cost may be a sticking point. At about $69 million each, the plane is competitive in terms of cost against the C-130J, but not against a smaller aircraft such as the C-27J. “Upfront is expensive,” says Anthony, “but it works out to less over the life of the aircraft. Usually ten percent less. Costs have been constantly going down over the years.”

Perhaps the most tantalizing feature of the Osprey is its ability, if needed, to undertake both the search and the rescue. Unlike conventional fixed-wing aircraft which, having located their target, must rely on helicopters for the rescue, the Osprey could, in theory, do both. The question is precisely what the air force is looking for. Especially as it recently purchased a new SAR helicopter, the Cormorant. Regarding the selection procedure, Anthony says, “we are hoping for some kind of extended set of criteria, not an airplane-only box.”

Airbus Military C295
Another twin engine aircraft, the C295 is a stretched version of the Spanish C235. “We feel we have a proven product,” says Pedro Mas, head of Airbus Military Canada, “an excellent combination of platform and mission system.” Several nations already use the C235 as a search and rescue aircraft, notably the United States Coast Guard, which will have 18 of the HC-144A Ocean Sentry variant in service by 2014.

“I think that’s a very good reference for us. It’s close to here, so they [the air force] can check the performance,” Mas said.

The C295 boasts a maximum range of 3040 nautical miles, allowing it to cover all search and rescue areas required by the RCAF, plus an inflight refuelling capability. A possible negative is its relatively low cruising speed, just 260 knots at sea level, although says Mas, “we feel the speed is good.”

Lockheed Martin C-130J
The all-new C-130J is the workhorse of the air force’s transport squadrons, and the company is eager that the RCAF consider it as a replacement for the legacy C-130s currently doing search and rescue now. The new plane has both longer range and greater fuel efficiency than previous models, although its four engines make it, relatively speaking, more expensive to operate than the C-27J or the C295.

Ed Arner, Lockheed Martin’s campaign lead on the C-130J SAR Project, cites a number of factors that might favour the Hercules. For one, in terms of “bedding down,” as the efforts needed to prepare a new aircraft for use are known, “the training school, the maintenance and the in-service support are all in place.” While the unit cost of the C-130J might be higher than smaller aircraft, the amounts spent already represent a “future cost avoidance.” Other points favouring the purchase of new Hercules include the fact that currently serving models have successfully carried out this work for going on three decades. As well, says Arner, “we have a proven search and rescue C-130J serving today” with the United States Coast Guard, which currently has six HC-130Js, as they are known, in service.

One of the most novel ideas kicked around during this protracted procurement process is that the Buffalo be replaced with…the Buffalo. Viking Air, located in Victoria and Calgary, has made a name for itself servicing de Havilland products and, in the case of the Twin Otter, manufacturing them itself. Viking offers to upgrade the remaining Buffalos, replacing their old engines with more modern Pratt and Whitney PW150s and outfitting them with digital avionics, and to build all-new aircraft as well.

According to Defense Industry Daily, the result would be capable of using short landing strips like its predecessor and nimble enough to thread its way through mountain passes, but with a new, souped-up top speed of 300 knots at sea level.

At the moment, Viking is close-mouthed about their new/old Buffalo. Said Dominque Spragg, vice-president of strategic planning, in an email, “[w]e are currently not entertaining interviews on the new Buffalo and like everyone else are waiting for the government to publish the final RFP and requirements document.” Were the air force to go with the Buffalo, at least for the West Coast, it would probably be as part of a two-plane solution. Such a possibility was allowed for by Minister of Defence Peter MacKay in November 2012, although this, as with everything else involving this project, is still up in the air.

For now, a FWSAR Secretariat under Public Works and Government Services Canada continues to consult with its prospective bidders.

Ian Coutts is the author of four books, most recently Brew North. His writing has appeared in Toronto Life, Canadian Business, the Globe and Mail, and elsewhere.