During a visit to Afghanistan in 2011, Major-General Richard Foster shared a flight on a Chinook D with a 20-year old signaller, a short hop by helicopter from Camp Nathan Smith to the Kandahar Airfield that by road could have been a perilous trip. The signaller was on his way home to family, the deputy commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force recalls, and “the look of relief on the young man’s face that he did not have to risk the possibility of an IED on the road said it all.”

On June 27, the RCAF officially took possession of the first of 15 Boeing CH-147 F-model Chinook helicopters during a ceremony in Ottawa, returning the distinctive tandem-rotor, heavy-lift capability to the Canadian Armed Forces after a 21-year absence.

“Canadian aircraft transporting Canadian troops in hostile territory is a fundamental requirement to operations and mission success,” Foster told officials gathered at the Ottawa airport to welcome the Chinook, which was later escorted by a pair of Bell CH-146 Griffons to its home base with 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa. “Its versatility, impressive capacity, and what we call long legs make it perfect for operations in our vast nation’s harsh territory and demanding environment. In future expeditionary roles, our Chinook F represents the tactical enabler of air mobility for the Canadian army.”

While the F-model may look like the helicopter that characterized the Vietnam war era, “it’s not your grandfather’s Chinook,” said Peter MacKay, the Minister of National Defence who was recently shuffled to Minister of Justice, a reference perhaps to the RCAF’s lengthy history with the older models.

In fact, the Canadian F-model was “designed especially for Canada’s unique needs,” said Kerry-Lynn Findlay, the former associate minister of National Defence and now Minister of Revenue, equipped with an extended range fuel tank that doubles the endurance of the standard F model. It also features an increased lift capacity of 20,000 pounds, enough to sling one of its Griffon escorts, and can carry 35 fully equipped combat troops or the equivalent of 11,363 kilograms of cargo.

The Chinook comes with a new state-of-the-art electrical system to support a sophisticated defensive suite, and contains improvements to the radar and laser warning systems. “The Chinook truly brings a whole new rotary wing capability to the CAF,” she said.

It’s also a sizeable investment, she acknowledged, although during a week in which the Minister of Public Works and Government Services admitted the hiring of an independent consultant to review the ability of Sikorsky to deliver the RCAF’s maritime helicopter replacement for the aging Sea Kings, the arrival of a rotorcraft “within budget and on schedule” was welcomed news. The total cost for the program is approximately $6.7 billion, which includes $2.3 billion for the acquisition of the 15 Chinooks, $2.7 billion for a 20-year in-service support program, and $1.7 billion for personnel and operations costs over 20 years.

The first F-model, fuselage 147303, completed its maiden test flight last June and had been undergoing pilot tests in Mesa, Arizona with its first 450 Squadron air crew.

Distinguished history
The arrival of the Chinook marks a new chapter in the life of 450 Squadron, which has a long and distinguished history with the helicopter. Formed in 1963 as 1 Transport Helicopter Platoon of the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps, the unit operated CH-113A Voyageurs to transport troops, equipment and supplies over the battlefield.

In 1974, the squadron was re-equipped with eight CH-147 Chinook C-models, which it operated for 16 years before the fleet was retired in 1991 and the helicopters sold to the Royal Netherlands Air Force. 450 Squad continued on with the CH-135 Twin Huey, used for utility transport and a new role supporting Special Forces counterterrorism efforts, but that was eventually ceased in 1996 and the squadron was formally disbanded on Jan. 1, 1998.

The realities of troop transport in Afghanistan sparked a new call for medium- to heavy-lift helicopter capability and the government initiated a program in 2006. Recognizing the army’s requirement for heavy lift, especially for its air-transportable Howitzers, it awarded the contract to Boeing in 2009. In the interim, however, following an urgent recommendation from the Manley Panel in 2008, the government acquired six D-model Chinooks from the U.S. Army for operations in Afghanistan – the four remaining are now for sale.

Last May, 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron was reactivated under the command of LCol Duart Townsend in Petawawa in preparation for the first Chinooks, which will be arriving approximately one per month for the next year. Given its motto, “By Air to Battle”, the unit’s location in Petawawa with 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group and their air mobile specialists was a logical choice. The squad is under the command of 1 Wing in Kingston but will be a self-contained operation with advanced hangars, a training facility for air crews and maintainers and a supply depot. The squadron will ramp up to full operating capability in stages, but FOC is anticipated by 2017.

Townsend, the last member of 450 Squadron to be trained on the Chinook before the fleet was disbanded in 1998, said that although the helicopters are now arriving, the most important focus remains “building that foundation and that starts with building the schoolhouse. We’ll be setting up and receiving some training from Boeing the first year; after that, on the aircrew training, we transition over to a plan that is being developed by CAE in Montreal jointly with us.” In May, CAE received a $250 million contract for the simulation systems.

Training for the technicians will transition from Boeing directly to the squadron itself. “One of the aids to help us is a training system that looks very much like a real aircraft,” Townsend explained. “It has additional systems in it that can replicate faults so that the technicians can train and trouble shoot some of the issues that may arise out of regular operations.”

In fact, the schoolhouse will feature an advanced networked training system allowing “a significant portion of the training syllabus [to] be conducted on simulators,” he said. “We’ll have a full motion simulator and a fixed-based simulator and a deployable simulator [that will fit in a container] that we could bring with us.”

The system will also have an integrated gunnery trainer “that really looks like an IMAX cinema, 10-15 metres in size and the aft-portion mock up of a Chinook that will then allow door gunners to practice.”

All the simulators will be integrated to allow crews to see other aircraft, and the system will be networked with the CC-130J simulators at the new Air Mobility Training Centre at CFB Trenton, which would allow crews in Trenton for example to simulate a parachute drop while crews in Petawawa, in tandem, rehearsed an airmobile operation, Townsend said.

After more than 20 years, Townsend is thrilled to see the first CH-147F Chinook on Canadian soil. Its value, in the words of Minister Findlay, has already been proven. “[The Chinooks] more than demonstrated their value in Afghanistan. [Their] durability and reliability proved crucial in theatre and literally saved lives.”