A new era for military search-and-rescue begins with the Kingfisher

A procurement saga more than 16 years in the making came to an end today with the arrival in Comox, British Columbia of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s new search and rescue plane.

The first of 16 C-295 fixed-wing “Kingfisher” aircraft purchased by the Canadian Forces was unveiled officially at the military base in the West Coast community.

The fleet is intended to replace two models of aircraft — the C-115 Buffalo and the C-130H Hercules — which have been doing search and rescue service for decades.

A Canadian Forces CC-115 Buffalo aircraft prepares to land at Chilliwack Airport in Chilliwack, B.C., on February 28, 2014. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Aircrew members are still training on the first Kingfisher, which comes equipped with an array of modern sensors that will allow crew members to spot missing people or objects from more than 40 kilometres away, even in low-light conditions. It will be a few months before it enters operational service.

It’s still a milestone. In 2004, the Liberal government of then-prime minister Paul Martin started a competition for a replacement plane that quickly became bogged down by corporate and defence politics.

Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, facing accusations that the air force was biased toward one of the competitors, sent the program for review. It wasn’t until a year after the Trudeau Liberals were elected in 2015 that a contract was signed with Airbus.

The fleet will cost taxpayers $2.4 billion. The price tag includes 11 years of in-service support, with an option to extend that support for 15 years at a cost of another $2.3 billion.

Delivery of the aircraft has been slowed down by the pandemic, but the manufacturer says it is still hoping to have all 16 Kingfishers delivered by 2022.

Comox is one of four operating search and rescue bases across the country. The others are Greenwood, N.S., Trenton, Ont., and Winnipeg.

“I am thrilled at the arrival of this first CC-295 Kingfisher in Comox as it represents another successful milestone for this project, while also supporting our mission of being strong at home,” said Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, who was on hand for the delivery in Comox.

The commander of the air force, Lt.-Gen. Al Meinzinger, said his search and rescue crews are eager to get to work learning the new plane.

“The transition to the new fixed-wing search and rescue fleet is a tremendous opportunity for us and one that we take on with determination and pride,” he said.

Simon Jacques, president of Airbus Defence and Space Canada, said it’s a big day for his company but an even bigger day for the air force, which has waited a long time for the new plane.

The manufacturer plans to deliver six aircraft in 2020 as it navigates the challenges of the pandemic.

“I think we did good to keep the schedule on track,” he told CBC News. “It is progressing well, despite COVID-19.” 

The military originally planned to have the KIngfisher flying missions by the end of this year, but defence officials suggested that might be too tight a timeline even before the pandemic. It will be 2022 before the entire fleet is flying its full range of missions.

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