Monday, September 15, 2014

Government under fire for scavenging aircraft parts from museum plane

Canada’s search-and-rescue system is being held together by “tape and baling wire,” say experts and opposition critics, after revelations that the Royal Canadian Air Force had to raid an old Hercules airplane at a museum for parts.

The Citizen reported Monday that air force technicians went through a Hercules on display at the National Air Force Museum of Canada in Trenton, Ont., in July 2012 because they needed navigational equipment for a similar aircraft still in use.

Asked about the issue in the House of Commons Monday, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson referred only to “a mistake” but did not explain what he meant. His office had earlier defended the scavenging of the museum-based aircraft, saying the military “took the initiative to remove these functional, perfectly good parts and use them effectively.”

News of the museum visit prompted opposition MPs to question the government’s commitment to Canada’s search-and-rescue capabilities in light of growing concerns about the state of the rescue system, which they argue has gotten worse under the Conservative government.

“This is a basic commitment for the Canadian Forces,” NDP defence critic Jack Harris said of search and rescue. “And the government is not giving it priority. It really makes you wonder why we can be so cavalier about foreign operations and at the same time we haven’t got our act together here at home.”

The Canadian Forces and Coast Guard respond to thousands of emergency calls around the country every year, from stranded fishermen and lost children to downed pilots and avalanche survivors. Search and rescue is considered a “no-fail mission,” meaning failure to find the target is unacceptable.

In April 2013, Auditor General Michael Ferguson said the military and coast guard had been able to “adequately respond” to search-and-rescue emergencies and distress calls in recent years. However, he also said unless urgent action was taken to address critical personnel and equipment challenges, response times and capabilities would fall dramatically. That included replacing the air force’s aging search-and-rescue airplanes.

Successive Liberal and Conservative governments have promised new planes since 2002, but documents obtained by the Citizen show defence officials don’t expect them to begin arriving until at least 2018.

Harris said he admired the “inventiveness” of the military personnel who were able to scour for parts from a museum to keep planes flying, “but it’s really clearly an indication of how badly these new aircraft are needed.”

Liberal search-and-rescue critic Yvonne Jones said it isn’t just the air force’s airplanes that are of concern; the air force also doesn’t have the right helicopters to do the job, while the coast guard is using old icebreakers.

“There’s no stability in search and rescue anymore,” she said. “There has been nothing done (by the Conservative government) to strengthen search-and-rescue activity in Canada.”

Rob Huebert of the University of Calgary said the fact the search-and-rescue system works as well as it does is a testament to the professionalism of the military and coast guard officials involved, given that it is being held together by “tape and baling wire.”

But he said there are no obvious quick fixes, especially when it comes to getting new equipment through the country’s troubled military procurement system.

“They’re (the government) trying to dig themselves out of a hole,” Huebert said of efforts to fix the search-and-rescue system. “But if it was you or me, I don’t know how we would do it.”

The Citizen reported Monday that the search-and-rescue squadron at CFB Trenton contacted the air force museum’s executive director in 2012 to see if they could go through the Hercules on display there.

They were seeking two inertial navigation units that they could take from the museum’s airplane and install in one of their H-model Hercules, which range in age from 20 to 40 years.

RCAF Capt. Julie Brunet said in an email, “These high value and essential systems allow long non-stop flights to be able to provide better response time to any search-and-rescue mission.”

Once air force technicians confirmed the museum’s Hercules still had its navigational units, it only took about half an hour to get them out.

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