Bell Helicopter is confident legal challenges to Canada's selection of its Bell 429 will be resolved and a contract awarded this year. (Kipp Baker/Bell Helicopter)
VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Canada plans to purchase new fleets of helicopters for its Coast Guard, but the acquisition has been stalled by legal problems and issues with the procurement process.
More than 24 light and medium-lift helicopters will be purchased to replace the 25-year-old aircraft operated by the Canadian Coast Guard, with bids for the medium aircraft due late this month.
The government has not released details on what the acquisition might cost, but industry officials estimate the combined price tag for aircraft, simulators and long-term in-service support contracts at about CAN $750 million (US $682 million).
There also has been interest in purchasing additional, larger helicopters for the Coast Guard’s Arctic operations, but again, no details have been released.
Sixteen light helicopters are to be ordered, with an option of four additional aircraft later. Bell Helicopter won that competition with its Bell 429, but a legal challenge was launched by Eurocopter Canada, recently renamed Airbus Helicopters Canada.
Based in Fort Erie, Ontario, Airbus Helicopters Canada alleges that Canada eased weight restrictions for the 429, skewing the procurement in favor of Bell.
Airbus Helicopters Canada did not respond to a request for comment.
Pierre-Alain Bujold, a spokesman for Public Works and Government Services Canada, which handles procurement, could not say when the contract with Bell would proceed.
“A notice of application for judicial review was filed with the federal court in relation to the solicitation process,” he explained. “As this matter is before the courts, no further comment can be made at this time.”
But Bell Helicopter spokesman Brian Bianco said the legal issues are expected to be sorted out shortly, and a contract awarded to the company this year.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: After this story was published, Bianco clarified the timeframe, saying “We are still waiting on the (legal) decision just like everyone else and do not have any more insight on the timeline for the final decision.”]
He said the twin-engine Bell 429 meets or exceeds the Canadian Coast Guard’s mission requirements. It’s in service with the Australian Navy, the Turkish Police and Air Zermatt, which provides emergency transport in the Swiss Alps.
Call for Medium Chopper
A second procurement for medium helicopters for the Canadian Coast Guard is underway; the government issued a request to industry in February. The government has said that requirement covers four to eight aircraft.
Bujold said companies have until May 27 to submit their bids. The contract would be awarded this year or early next year, he added.
“The first medium-lift helicopters are expected to be delivered 18 months after contract award,” Bujold said.
The government is expecting bids from Airbus Helicopters, AgustaWestland and Bell.
But industry sources say that AgustaWestland and Airbus Helicopters will not be bidding on the medium-lift helicopter procurement. AgustaWestland determined that its AW139 could not meet Coast Guard weight restrictions for operating from ships.
It is unclear why Airbus Helicopters is not bidding, but the weight restriction issue is believed to be behind the decision.
Government officials have noted that Sikorsky Aircraft could enter its S-76D in the contest. Sikorsky did not respond to a request for comment.
Bell spokesman Bianco said the company will enter its twin-engine Bell 412 in the medium-lift helicopter contest. The Canadian Forces uses a variant of the 412, known as the Griffon, as its main medium-lift helicopter.
The Bell 412 is in service with customers such as the Royal Saudi Air Force, Bahrain Police, Norwegian Air Force, Chilean Navy, Mexican National Police, British Royal Army and the Indonesian Army, Bianco noted.
He said the company can easily meet government requirements for industrial benefits linked to both procurements.
“Both products are manufactured in Canada at our Mirabel [Quebec] aircraft assembly site,” Bianco said.
The Canadian Coast Guard operates 22 helicopters, including the Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm Bo 105 as well as Bell 212s and Bell 206s.
Defense analyst Martin Shadwick said replacing the helicopters is crucial since they are aging and operate under austere conditions.
He noted the Sept. 9 crash of a Coast Guard helicopter in the Arctic Ocean, which underscores the need for modern rotary aircraft.
That crash, still under investigation, killed the pilot, the captain of the icebreaker Amundsen and a University of Manitoba scientist.
Shadwick said both Bell and Airbus Helicopters have a strong industrial presence in Canada.
But industry sources say the competition for both procurements seems to favor Bell. The Canadian government has denied that claim.
Shadwick, however, said it’s time that Canada look at acquiring more robust helicopters for operations in the Arctic.
He suggested either Sikorsky’s S-92 or AgustaWestland’s Cormorant would be well suited to operate from the Coast Guard’s new Polar-class icebreaker, which will be built over the next five years.
“You need something bigger for the Arctic, depending on the nature of the ship and the flight deck,” he said. “The smaller and medium helicopters are good for reconnaissance, but if you are moving scientific parties around, you have to go bigger.”
Canadian Coast Guard helicopters support activities such as ice reconnaissance; maintenance and construction of aids to navigation and telecommunications equipment; personnel and cargo transfer between ship and shore; and support to science and fisheries enforcement. ■