The 250 women and men of 443 Maritime Helicopter Squadron are training for a new mission: deploying the Cyclone helicopter aboard the frigate HMCS Regina.
It will be the first of the new Sikorsky helicopters to fly from a Canadian navy warship deployed from the West Coast. The mission is scheduled for January.
“Deploying on a sea-going mission is the epitome of our mission capability,” said Lt. Col. Travis Chapman, commanding officer of 443 Squadron, in an interview at the squadron’s hangar near Patricia Bay.
While the helicopters are part of the Royal Canadian Air Force, they’re at their best on board navy ships, Chapman said. “You can do a lot with a helicopter, but our primary role is being out there flying from the backs of ships.”
With helicopters always intended as a key element of Canadian Navy frigate design, the new Cyclones will allow the ships to operate at their full potential.
State-of-the-art sensory equipment aboard the Cyclone will make the frigate a more efficient anti-submarine weapon. Infrared and other photographic gear make it invaluable for surface-water reconnaissance.
Two CH 148 Cyclones have arrived at 443 Squadron, the first in August. Ultimately, the squadron will be equipped with nine Cyclones by 2021. The five remaining Sea King helicopters will be retired next year.
“Changing aircraft and all the support to make them fly is a huge ask,” said Chapman. “It’s huge.”
Cyclones began to arrive in Canada in 2015 to replace the Sea Kings, which went into service in the 1960s.
The Cyclones are now fully operational on the Atlantic coast.
The full fleet will have 28 helicopters, with the final ones delivered in 2021. Total cost is about $3.2 billion.
Controversy has dogged the helicopter project since 1986, when the Conservative government first selected a different design. When the Liberals took over in 1993, they cancelled that contract at a cost of $500 million in fees.
In 2003, the government chose the Cyclone, despite warnings it was an untested design. Production was beset by delays. The first of the aircraft didn’t arrive until well past the original delivery year of 2008.
But since its arrival, the two-engine Cyclone has wowed pilots. Its aluminum and carbon composite hull is lighter than the old Sea King and the new machine is about 10 per cent faster.
Chapman said the Cyclone comfortably cruises at 120 knots, where the old Sea King was happiest at 90.
Controls and instruments on the Cyclone are all digital, compared to the old hydraulic and analog equipment of the Sea King.
Chapman said helicopters, with their ability to lift off vertically and large carrying capacity, are versatile machines, whether they’re deployed in warfare, search and rescue, or humanitarian aid.
Last summer, 443 Squadron deployed helicopters to the Smithers area for weeks to fight forest fires.
When HMCS Regina and other Canadian frigates sail out, the ships’ companies are expected to include four pilots, four flight-support members and 12 technicians to maintain the aircraft.
There will be one combat support analyst to make sense of the data collected by the aircraft.
“One of the great things about the aircraft is it will see a lot because of all its sensors,” said Chapman. “And it records everything for playback from every flight.
“That is how we ply our trade and convey our capability,” he said. “It’s what we add to the capabilities of the navy.”