With another industry day scheduled for mid-October, Canada’s Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue program may finally be heading toward a draft request for proposal by the end of the year. Among the leading contenders is the twin engine C-27J Spartan by Italian manufacturer Alenia Aermacchi, an aircraft currently in operations with 10 nations in a range of environments. Though not specially a SAR aircraft, the Spartan has been used in humanitarian operations involving similar requirements. Over the past 11 months in Afghanistan, two C-27Js with the USAF have completed over 32,000 missions and 71 air drops while transporting 1,400 tonnes of cargo and 25,000 passengers. Dr. Alan Calegari, CEO Alenia North America, spoke with Vanguard about Canadian search and rescue and the aircraft.

How did Alenia assess search and rescue in Canada? Beyond weather and geography, does the SAR mission make any exceptional demands?

We looked at the program first and foremost [as to whether] we have the right aircraft to meet the mission as we believe it to be (it is still being defined through the process that the government of Canada is operating). For us it was an easy decision to say we can compete with an aircraft that probably has a superior level of performance just based on the physical characteristics of the aircraft and the ability to operate a multi-mission type aircraft that can be quickly reconfigured from search and rescue to air ambulance, whatever the SAR mission will be confronted with.

Second, we have tried to understand from information and dialogue with the ministries and others in industry what we can do to render our aircraft even more suitable for the mission. I don’t know what the specific sensor requirements will be, but whatever requirements they request we can certainly meet and incorporate into the aircraft without any major modifications.

We understood as a company that we could not do this alone. So we have announced a partnership with General Dynamics Canada, which is the current provider of ISS [in-service support] for rotary SAR; we have formed a partnership with Provincial Aerospace – they are currently doing missions for search and rescue under the current program – and with our sister company, DRS Canada. This is not just about giving an aircraft, this is a program to be sustained for 20 years. So it is a long range commitment with all of the variables that can come into play over a 20-year span. We need to have that knowledge today so that we can commit the resources, the technical expertise, to sustain the evolution of the aircraft.

Does the Arctic pose unique challenges?

I can’t comment on other aircraft but certainly our aircraft has met that demand. It is flying in Scandinavian counties, which are the equivalent of an Arctic sub region. It has flown in very harsh conditions in Croatia over mountainous regions. So the aircraft is well tested in real environments. In the event of an expanded role for Canada as an international partner supporting Arctic search and rescue, we believe the aircraft will be used to allocate either rotary assets or vessels that will then engage. But we have the potential to land on the ice cap. The Arctic region is not a deterrent for the performance of the aircraft.

You mentioned partnerships. Were you looking for specific Canadian expertise in Arctic or mountainous operations?

One of the most important factors in selecting the partners was the value of adding Canadian content. Obviously we know our aircraft but we don’t know as much as our partners about the Canadian environment. We wanted to know from an operator what you encounter day in and day out when you fly these missions. That was certainly the case with PAL because they do fly the missions today and they do have a very strong position in the North. General Dynamics, of course, has broad experience in how they manage performance-based, long-term contracts – we needed to understand that and how it relates to the sustainability and support we need to bring as an OEM. And then we needed a technology integrator that was knowledgeable of our systems but could also add value by understanding the operational side of Canada. We have others – CAE for the training. We want to reach out and make it as Canada as possible. No matter what, the mission system will be built in Canada by Canadians.

Given that the C-27J was not initially billed as a SAR aircraft, does a SAR configuration require anything different or unusual?

Not really. We’ll need to wait and understand more what the definition of requirements will be. But I wouldn’t say there is anything exceptional from a support/logistics standpoint for the aircraft outside of perhaps frequency of maintenance if the aircraft is used in a particular environment for an extended period of time. One of the advantages of the airplane is that it has plenty of room for all of the equipment that SAR teams carry, which is quite a bit; there is plenty of room in the back for a mission system – we don’t know what that is going to look like, but we have the flexibility to adapt. In my opinion, one of the most positive things is the versatility that the aircraft has to accommodate in a palletized form various stages of equipment that will render it suitable for a mission. So if, for example, it has to have command and control equipment, they can roll up onto the aircraft through a palletized system the equipment that is necessary. It could then come back and reconfigure for evacuation or medevac. We believe that capability is going to be an excellent workhorse for RCAF search and rescue because they can man the bases in a flexible way without having a rigidly configured aircraft that can only do certain things.

This program has had more downs than ups over the years. With wider and more frequent consultation, has it become more amenable to industry?

As president of a company, if it happens in a week it is too late. But realizing the importance and the sensitivity of budgets, the government of Canada has probably made the right decision to reset the program. The process is very comprehensive. It is a very cooperative effort between the ministers of Public Works, DND, the air force search and rescue and industry to make sure that nothing is missed, that every aspect of the program is addressed. So, yes, maybe at a pace that is not what I would like to see from a company standpoint, but I am confident, particularly after the discussion we had at CANSEC, that this is a program the government wants to execute, but without the risk of having a problem on their hands. I understand that. The budgets for this are very large. Accountability and transparency must be met.

As the process has changed, are you seeing any substantial changes to the requirements or the program itself?

There is still the discussion of one or two contracts: one for procurement of the aircraft, the other for the in-service support. Ultimately, I think one point of accountability will prevail, which is what the government wants. I haven’t seen any changes that are currently challenging us in rethinking the programming.

There has been discussion of options such as outsourcing. Is this feasible in your mind?

We had heard at one point there was the option of a mixed fleet, the option of outsourcing. I think it is going to be a very difficult thing to do if they want one single point of accountability. The Canadian air force is ultimately going to be responsible for the deliverables of these things. You can outsource certain aspects of it but you cannot outsource the overall results of a program which by nature has to have a structure of a military organization, a chain of command that understands emergency response, flyable airspace, all the stuff that has to be governed by a government agency and not by an operator that would tend to look at profitability and not the mission.

As we approach an RFP, what are your next steps?

Internally, we are reviewing every aspect of our campaign. We have in place a number of meetings, all in Canada, because we need to be extremely localized in the decision making process as well.