Leonardo, October 18, 2021 - On October 11th 2021, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s CH-149 Cormorant fleet of AW101 helicopters celebrated 20-years since the aircraft’s initial delivery to Comox, British Columbia (BC).
This significant milestone compliments the fleet’s recent achievement of 100,000 flight hours.
Since delivery of the CH-149 Cormorant helicopters, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) has been performing thousands of life saving missions throughout Canada, from the peaks of snowy windswept mountains, the east and west maritime coasts, to the high Arctic as well as internationally – providing humanitarian support.
After distinguished 20-years of service life, the CH-149 Cormorant fleet is requiring a mid-life upgrade that is being proposed by Leonardo, together with its Team Cormorant partners, IMP Aerospace and Defence, CAE, GE Canada, and Collins Aerospace Canada.
The Cormorant Mid Life Upgrade (CMLU) will address obsolescence issues, ensure compliance with emerging airspace requirements, extend the life expectancy of the fleet to 2042+ and return the Cormorant to Main Operating Base (MOB) Trenton through fleet augmentation.
The RCAF achieved 100,000 hrs flying hours of the Cormorant fleet in July this year, 103 Sqn at MOB Gander, 413 Sqn at MOB Greenwood, 442 Sqn at MOB Comox and the In-Service Support Contractor, and Leonardo’s CMLU partner, IMP Aerospace, accomplished this incredible milestone together.
The Cormorant helicopter and its RCAF crews have served Canadians with exemplary service over the past 20-years, and this continues as evidenced during recent missions, such as the rescue of 31 people from a sinking offshore scallop dragger off the coast of Nova Scotia. The Cormorant was part of a fixed- and rotary-wing team that supported this critical rescue operation.
Furthermore and testament to the Cormorant and its crews’ capability, in early 2021, two CH-149 helicopters from MOB Gander and MOB Comox provided Search and Rescue (SAR) support to the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s Amalgam Dart exercise. The event took place in the most northerly permanently settled place on Earth between North Canada and Greenland.
All-weather SAR helicopters
The history of the Cormorant stems back to 1998 when Canada awarded the-then AgustaWestland International Limited (now Leonardo), a contract for 15 all-weather SAR Cormorant helicopters to replace its CH-113 Labrador fleet.
The contract included conversion to type training for the initial cadre of Royal Canadian Air Force aircrew, undertaken in Europe. On 30th September to further enhance training, provide additional hours on type, and increase the crew’s confidence in the Cormorant helicopter, the Canadian aircrew performed the long ferry flight from Leonardo’s manufacturing facility in northern Italy to the west coast of Canada while stopping intermittently along the route.
One of the pilots supporting the Canadian aircrew, former Leonardo Pilot, Jeremy Tracy, commented, “The aircraft departed Vergiate, Italy, on the 30th September in 2001 along with a support crew from IMP who took care of the maintenance enroute.
“We initially flew to Marseilles as the weather over the Alps was poor and we were forced to stop in Montpellier overnight. The following day saw us fly from France to Yeovil, Leonardo’s UK onshore helicopter facility, where our colleagues viewed the Cormorant helicopter enroute to Canada.”
The following day the crew flew to Aberdeen in Scotland, where they met the C-130 Hercules crew that would accompany the helicopter on the entire journey.
The crew pressed on to Vagar in the Faroes to refuel and continued to Reykjavik in Iceland for an overnight stop. The next day the crew flew from Iceland to Kulusuk on the East coast of Greenland to refuel and then on to Narssassuaq on the Southern tip of Greenland, as the weather over the top of Greenland was in the midst of a snowstorm.
Tracy continued: “Our trusty C-130 team advised against flying over the top of Greenland. The following morning we flew to Nuuk the capital of Greenland on the West coast and then we flew on to Iqaluit in Nunavut, the first landfall in Canada. Following an established route, the next stop was Kuujjuaq to refuel and then to Grand Rivières in Quebec at the southern end of Hudson Bay, where we stopped overnight in the bitter cold at -32 degrees.”
The crew then flew onto Thunder Bay for refuelling and on to Winnipeg to show the aircraft to 1st Canadian Air Division and complete some maintenance. The penultimate stops were to Moosejaw and on to Calgary to stop overnight.
“Finally, on the 11th October, we flew from Calgary to Kamloops to refuel and on to Comox the home of the Training Squadron and 442Sqn, for a celebratory arrival,” Tracy shared.
Following delivery of the first two Cormorant helicopters to Comox, BC, the first operational flight took place in July 2002, with a medical evacuation of a sailor from a freighter 200 km (110 nm) off the coast of BC.
Later that year, a Cormorant flew a 1,200 km (648 nm) rescue mission off Newfoundland, demonstrating its enhanced SAR capabilities by surpassing the 1,100 km range of the Labrador helicopters it had replaced.
From the first mission in 2001 to 2021 SAR operations, operational success is only possible due to the ever-evolving capabilities of the Cormorant alongside the hard-working crews who operate and support the multi-role medium-heavy three-engine helicopter today and into the future.