Canada's tired fleet of Sea King helicopters has been grounded after one of the choppers toppled over at a Nova Scotia Air Force base with four people on board.
It is unknown whether the incident late Monday evening at 12 Wing Shearwater is related to the age of the helicopter. Investigators from the military's Directorate of Flight Safety were called to determine what happened and whether the rest of the fleet could experience the same problem.
But as the Sea Kings approach their 50th anniversary being used for air support to the Canadian Navy – a milestone that will be marked on Aug. 1 – there are plenty of questions about the length of time it is taking to replace them.
The issue is about to fall onto the plate of Diane Finley, the new Public Works Minister, who takes over what former defence minister Peter MacKay once called the worst procurement in Canada's history.
"The sad fact of the matter is that these aircraft are now a half a century old, and our pilots are having to use them because the navy needs maritime helicopters for various purposes, essential purposes," said Michael Byers, a defence policy expert at the University of British Columbia.
"These brave men and women go into the air and over the ocean in aircraft that are, in many cases, twice as old as they are," he said. "And that's simply not safe."
On Monday, the helicopter had taxied safely back to the ramp at Shearwater after a routine flight. But then the tail rotor lifted and the main rotor tipped and hit the ground, crashing into some neighbouring buildings. The people on the helicopter were uninjured.
The Department of National Defence is waiting on 28 new Sikorsky Cyclone helicopters to replace the Sea Kings, a $5.7-billion purchase that was made in 2004 by the Liberal government of Paul Martin. That was after former prime minister Jean Chrétien cancelled an order for 50 replacement helicopters that Brian Mulroney had placed in 1992.
The Cyclones were supposed to have arrived in 2008. But, in 2004, they were were still in the design stage, and technological hurdles have delayed the development and production. Sikorsky has also incurred tens of millions of dollars in penalties for late delivery of the Canadian contract.
"We are involved in ongoing, confidential discussions with the government regarding contractual matters impacting the delivery schedules. Sikorsky is committed to completing the program as quickly as possible, and continues to make steady progress," company spokesman Paul Jackson said in an e-mail. "All 28 aircraft are either completed and in basic flight-ready configuration, including four in Shearwater, or are in final test and assembly as we continue to work on the mission system completion."
But Dr. Byers points out that the Cyclones on the ground at Shearwater are just that – on the ground. They are meant for training mechanics and ground crews, but are not ready for flight.