Fixed-wing search and rescue (FWSAR) planes are vital in our vast country, which has the largest search and rescue (SAR) area in the world. Yes, helicopters play an important part, but airplanes are faster, carry heavier loads and have far greater range.

When it comes to Arctic search and rescue, however, fast may not always be fast enough. Our SAR planes are based in southern Canada – and it takes them hours to reach northern locations. A CC-115 Buffalo, cruising at 322 km per hour, would take nearly seven hours to fly from Comox to the Tuktoyaktuk area, by my calculation. A CC-130E Hercules, cruising at 556 km per hour, would spend more than six hours in the air from Trenton to Resolute.

And that’s just the flying time. Before they can take off, SAR crews are permitted between 30 and 120 minutes to get ready to fly, adding to the time it takes to arrive. Clearly, people in trouble in the Arctic could end up waiting eight to ten hours for a SAR plane to show up.

Response time is not the only problem. Our SAR planes are old, acquired in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and require a lot of maintenance. When they are in the shop they cannot fly. For years there have been plans to replace them. But they are still flying.

This is why the Senate committee I chaired recently recommended that acquisition of new fixed-wing search and rescue aircraft for the air force be made the military’s top procurement priority, and that it position some SAR assets in the North.

The push for new FWSAR planes began about eight years ago. It was clear that a new fleet was needed. The Hercs and Buffaloes had been hard at work for over 30 years at that point – past their “best before” dates.

Now, nearly seven years after the original Statement of Operational Requirements (SOR) was drafted for the new planes, and their procurement fast-tracked, we’re back at the drawing board, nearly back to square one – with the air force revising the SOR even as the ancient, parts-starved planes stand by for emergency calls.

What happened? First, priorities changed. Partly due to the Afghanistan mission, tactical and strategic lift aircraft (the Hercules CC-130J and CC-177 Globemaster) jumped the procurement queue.

FWSAR seemed to get a new lease on life in 2008, however, when the Canada First Defence Strategy explicitly stated that 17 aircraft would be acquired, starting in 2015. But the Canadian aerospace industry was unhappy with the original SOR. They believed it was written to prefer one aircraft, the Italian Alenia C-27J.

Then, in March 2010, a National Research Council report, commissioned by Public Works and Government Services, forced the issue. It found most of the original SOR requirements unacceptable. “The SOR as written is over-constrained,” the authors soberly concluded. In late October 2010, the Department of National Defence said the air force would revise the SOR. A new SOR has not yet been released.

Climate change is altering Canada’s Arctic. Many predict a jump in shipping if or when new, seasonally ice-free areas appear. Much of the talk concerns transit shipping between Asia and eastern North America or Europe through the Northwest Passage. Even if that never comes to pass, there is sure to be a rise in so-called “destination shipping” in Canada’s Arctic, as the push for resource exploration and exploitation grows and as more tourists, some of them ill-prepared for harsh conditions, choose to take a cruise or otherwise explore the North. Then there are the increasing numbers of Polar over-flights and Arctic destination flights by commercial and chartered aircraft.

Yes, the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association concept from southern Canada is being extended to the North – to blend volunteer rescue mission coordinators and aerial spotters with the commercial aviation sector. And the Canadian Forces’ Rapid Reaction Force North is practising how to deal with Arctic air disasters, among other things.

These developments, however, do not change my view, recommended in our Senate committee’s bipartisan report, based on witness testimony, that new SAR planes must be the top procurement priority, and that at least one dedicated SAR plane should be based in the North.

Senator Pamela Wallin was chair of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence in the last Parliament. The committee tabled its report, Sovereignty & Security In Canada’s Arctic, in March.