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Long Overdue: Canadian and Sikorsky Aircraft officials will try to reach an agreement on delivery of the CH-148 Cyclone, which still has not met all of the Royal Canadian Air Force's standards. / Canadian Forces
VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Sikorsky and Canadian government officials hope to hammer out an agreement by March that will outline the delivery schedule for the controversial Cyclone helicopter, putting into service an aircraft that has yet to meet Royal Canadian Air Force requirements.
The Canadian government had been refusing to accept the helicopters built for the Royal Canadian Air Force by the Stratford, Conn., company. Last summer, it threatened to cancel the CAN $5 billion (US $4.8 billion) project.
But Canada announced Jan. 3 that it has decided to follow through with the troubled purchase and work with Sikorsky to fix ongoing problems. Industry sources say key to the decision to proceed with the Cyclone acquisition was the fact that the Canadian government had already spent $1.7 billion on the project.
In 2004, Sikorsky signed the contract to build 28 Cyclones, a maritime variant of its S-92. The first fully equipped helicopter was supposed to be delivered in November 2008, with all deliveries completed by early 2011. But Sikorsky has yet to deliver a fully compliant aircraft.
Canadian Defence Minister Rob Nicholson said he expects fully capable Cyclones to arrive sometime in 2018, a decade behind schedule.
In the meantime, Canada is willing to accept Cyclones with a lesser operational capability so it can start retiring its 50-year-old Sea Kings starting in 2015. A program to bring those Cyclones up to a fully capable level would be performed later.
Sikorsky and Canadian government representatives are negotiating when the first Cyclones will be turned over to the Air Force and how many aircraft will be delivered per year.
Pierre-Alain Bujold, a spokesman for Public Works and Government Services Canada, confirmed that “the government and Sikorsky have now entered into formal contract negotiations.”
Public Works is the government department overseeing procurement.
Sikorsky spokesman Paul Jackson said those negotiations are expected to be completed by the end of March. By then, the delivery schedule will have been worked out.
“Four Cyclones are in Shearwater [Nova Scotia] that have been used for initial pilot and maintenance crew training,” he wrote in an email. “Those aircraft are still owned by Sikorsky. Six other Cyclone aircraft are housed in a secure facility in New York State close to the Canadian border.”
All the remaining aircraft are either in final stages of flight-testing or production, Jackson said.
In 2013, for the first time, Canadian government ministers started questioning whether Sikorsky could deliver on the Cyclone contract. They threatened to cancel the contract, and Air Force officers were sent to the UK to examine the possible purchase of Merlin Mark 2 helicopters.
The Merlins are upgraded variants of the AW101. The Royal Canadian Air Force also operates variants of the AW101 for search-and-rescue missions.
But Canada backed away from its threat to buy new aircraft, citing the amount it has already spent. The $1.7 billion went to the aircraft, development of mission systems, flight simulation equipment and infrastructure.
The government also noted that an independent consulting firm concluded that the Cyclone program is still viable.
Sikorsky is the prime contractor for the project, while General Dynamics Canada Ltd. and L-3 MAS are principal subcontractors. General Dynamics is developing and testing the onboard mission systems while L-3 MAS will perform the in-service support engineering activities and will manage that support program.
Sikorsky has agreed to pay Canada $88.6 million in damages for late delivery of the aircraft.
Problems with the project surfaced shortly after work began in 2005. Several years later, Canada agreed to renegotiate the delivery schedule and under a new deal pay Sikorsky $117 million extra for improvements to be made to the helicopter, as well as changes to the long-term in-service support package for the aircraft.
The improvements included more powerful engines to be installed on the helicopters, as well as upgrades made to various onboard computers.
The government also agreed to a new delivery schedule, with the first fully compliant maritime helicopter arriving in June 2012. But Sikorsky failed to meet that timetable.
Former Defence Minister Peter MacKay has called the Cyclone purchase “the worst procurement in the history of Canada.”
In a report on the status of the project, released in October 2010, then-Auditor General Sheila Fraser pointed out that the Department of National Defence failed to assess the risks involved with what was a developmental aircraft.
The Cyclone helicopters were lacking capabilities in areas of mission system software and the exchange of tactical data between ships and the helicopter, Fraser concluded in her 50-page report titled, “Acquisition of Military Helicopters.” ■