The first of the Canadian Armed Forces' new and costly transport aircraft has landed in Kandahar at the beginning of a year that is supposed to mark the end of Canada's combat role in Afghanistan.
The Hercules C-130J is the first of Canada's new cargo fleet to arrive in Afghanistan after being ordered by the Conservative government three years ago. The new aircraft are expected to replace the bulk of the military's aging, existing fleet, which consists of older models of the C-130 Hercules, some of which were purchased 50 years ago.
The time of the new arrival could be seen as odd, considering that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has committed to withdrawing Canada from a military role in July. A spokesperson for the forces could not say whether the aircraft, as well as another C-130J that is due to arrive in Kandahar in the spring, will stay in Afghanistan for use by coalition forces or if it will be brought back when Canada withdraws.
But regardless of where it ends up, the military is likely to put the plane made by Lockheed Martin to good use, said Andy Fitzgerald, an aerospace consultant and retired major who performed maintenance on the older models for about nine years at the air force base in Trenton, Ont.
"It's been a workhorse for long before we've been in Afghanistan," Mr. Fitzgerald said of the Hercules. "The Winnipeg floods are a great example where there were Herculeses flying day after day." He also pointed to the piles of relief shipments that were sent to Haiti as another example of the Hercules' capacity to move lots of supplies - and quickly.
The new Hercules won't entirely muscle out the old models. The Armed Forces says that, while some of the planes will eventually be retired, the old fleet will be used domestically for search and rescue, as well as air-to-air refuelling and Arctic sovereignty operations.
Lockheed Martin has taken a particular interest in the Canadian military's ability to keep its old fleet flying for as long as it has, said Peter Simmons, a spokesman for the Maryland-based company.
"In terms of collective flight hours, Canada has the oldest C-130 fleet in the world. And there's a lot of ways the Canadian Forces kept the old fleet flying. There are processes in that, that obviously interest us because the C-130 fleet worldwide is getting older," Mr. Simmons said. "The discipline in the way they maintain their aircraft is probably one of the best in the world."
There's no secret to the preservation of the aircraft other than prudent decision making, Mr. Fitzgerald said. While other countries have been content to run their C-130s into the ground, the Canadian military has made strategic modifications to maintain the hulking planes. They've all been re-wired and had their wings replaced, he said.
That is not to say that the forces won't benefit from the new, improved Hercules, which has reduced the need for two crew members thanks to its sophisticated global positioning and computer system. The aircraft's glass cockpit, with visual displays right at eye level, means pilots don't have to look down at gauges any more. It's also about 10 per cent bigger than the old models, and can carry supplies and troops longer distances. Nearly 130 combat troops can climb into its belly, as opposed to its previous maximum haul of 92.
The high-tech features of the aircraft make it particularly useful in combat situations; its intricate GPS system allows it to drop cargo and supplies to troops on the ground within 30 metres of its intended target; it can land on terrain that old models couldn't dare; its four Rolls-Royce engines and six-blade propellers allow it to take off at a speed that will frustrate would-be attackers.
"It can fly further [and]faster, carry a greater payload, take off on a shorter field, and it's just as rugged as the venerable C-130s that we still have in service today," Defence Minister Peter MacKay said about the new aircraft in July.