Canadian air force evaluators warned nearly a decade ago that the CH-148 Cyclone helicopter might not measure up in terms of engine performance, acoustic noise and its ability to resist electronic interference, The Canadian Press has learned.
Previously unreleased National Defence reports that date back to September 2004, recently viewed by CP, cite a litany of concerns about Sikorsky's plan to convert its existing S-92 helicopter for maritime and military missions.
The highly technical appraisals were conducted by a team of dozens of air force engineers before then prime minister Paul Martin awarded what was at the time a $1.8-billion contract.
Yet, despite the concerns and the fact that some aspects of Sikorsky's plan were declared "non-compliant," the bid was allowed to proceed based on the assumption the company would be able to overcome the existing problems.
The red flags that were set down by engineers, based on some 475 different evaluation criteria, proved prescient in identifying major issues that have plagued and ultimately delayed the program to the point where the Harper government is now considering scrapping it.
Nonetheless, the program has progressed significantly since the evaluation documents were first produced nearly 10 years ago, Paul Jackson, a spokesman for the U.S. aircraft maker, said Sunday.
"Sikorsky has either demonstrated ready solutions or fully resolved any technical issues raised in early technical reports," Jackson said in an e-mail.
"The CH-148 Cyclone is the world's most advanced maritime helicopter, bar none. We continue to make solid progress toward completing this program and delivering unrivalled capability to the Canadian Forces."
Officials from the Department of National Defence did not respond to a detailed series of written questions provided Friday about the technical reports, as well as the possible implications of scrapping the deal.
The Harper government, which is looking at other helicopters, is expected to decide later this month whether to continue with the program.
In terms of the evaluation of the Cyclone engine's airworthiness, the reports show the company was given the benefit of the doubt in 2004 since it had not yet built a military version of the aircraft.
"Sikorsky did not provide some of the [proof of certification] material as required," said the evaluation. "However, the material presented is generally judged to meet the intent of the [Maritime Helicopter Requirement Specifications] requirement."
Evaluators were skeptical about the amount of testing hours devoted to the engine, and rated the risk to the bid as "medium."
Years later, however, the issue resurfaced when it became clear the heavier military requirements made the Cyclones sluggish and less efficient in the air. In 2010, Sikorsky announced it would upgrade the engine to a more powerful model, the CT7-8A7, and the Harper government agreed to spend an additional $117-million to support the plan.
Evaluators also raised questions about the helicopter's ability to stay airborne in the event of a catastrophic loss of oil. The report noted that the S-92 "failed on the initial test and did not meet the 30-minute" run-dry requirement – something that would become significant in 2009 with the crash of an S-92 off Newfoundland that killed 17 oil workers and flight crew.
A Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded that two of three titanium studs that secure the oil filter bowl assembly to the helicopter's main gearbox sheared off mid-flight. The board's final report said the resulting loss of oil pressure was one of a "complex web" of factors that contributed to the crash.
It also recommended that all Sikorsky S-92 helicopters be able to run without oil in their main gearboxes for 30 minutes.
Defence sources recently questioned the Cyclone's ability to withstand intense electromagnetic fields, the kind generated by military-grade radar. In 2004, air force engineers raised questions about the interference, which has the potential to blank out instruments.
"The [High Intensity Radiated Fields] has still not been rectified to match up with the [Maritime Helicopter Requirement Specifications]," one of the evaluators wrote on Sept. 8, 2004.
Since Sikorsky had not yet converted the helicopter to military specifications, it acknowledged the government would have to trust it to meet the requirement.
"The bidder has stated here that the testing cannot be completed until final aircraft assembly, at a proper site (in this case Patuxent River, Maryland, USA or Canadian equivalent)."
The evaluation report also raised questions about acoustic noise and the Cyclone's ability to land and take off from the pitching deck of a warship at sea.
In some cases, Sikorsky told National Defence it would provide more information after the contract was signed, leading one evaluator to note that "it was up to DND management to decide if DND is ready to accept the risk of not having a [basis of compliance] as clearly defined as possible before signing a contract with the winning bidder."
After Sikorsky won the contract, rival bidder AgustaWestland cried foul, citing politics: 10 years before the Martin government, Jean Chrétien's Liberals cancelled a contract with the company to buy EH-101 helicopters. In 2004, the company offered up the AW-101 – a variant of the original, but still close enough to be politically uncomfortable.
Alan Williams, the senior defence bureaucrat in charge of the Cyclone purchase at the time, said AgustaWestland's bid was "non-compliant" and dismissed as nonsense any suggestion that the political fix was in for Sikorsky.
"They blew it. They were clearly non-compliant and they know it," Williams said in an interview with The Canadian Press. "They didn't do a good enough job."
Williams' comment was met with a firm denial by AgustaWestland, which said in a statement late Sunday that "at no point did the Government of Canada declare that the AW101 was non-compliant."
"The aircraft met all of the performance and equipment requirements of the original Request for Proposals, then and now, and Mr. Williams knows this," the statement said.
What exactly the company did wrong, Williams was not prepared to say, but he insisted the Liberal government of the day never exerted pressure on him to favour one bid over another.
He acknowledged the concerns presented in the pre-qualification report, but noted that it was just the first kick at the tires.
"Unless it's a really, really black-and-white thing, in the pre-qualification you're not going to eliminate people."
Williams said he pressured engineers in a number of closed-door meetings to assure him that Sikorsky could make the leap from civilian to maritime military helicopter.
"They said: 'It's not a slam dunk.' But the thinking was that it could be done, and so I didn't feel we didn't have cause to rule them non-compliant even though I knew that this wasn't a slam dunk."
Williams acknowledged that he could be blamed for "picking something that turns out to be non-deliverable."
He left the defence purchasing office shortly after the contract award, but added that had he been there in 2006 when it became apparent the program was in trouble, he would have recommended it be cancelled.
"If the government thought the contract was non-deliverable, it did the one thing it should never have done, it let [Sikorsky] off the hook," Williams said. "It would have been much smarter to do what they might do now" and cancel it.
When former defence minister Peter MacKay described the Cyclones as the "worst" procurement in government history, "quite frankly he made it into the worst procurement," Williams added.
The Cyclones were supposed to be on the flight line in 2008, but Sikorsky has delivered only a handful of choppers for testing.
The federal government has refused to accept those helicopters, currently parked at the Canadian Forces facility in Shearwater, N.S., on the basis they are "non-compliant."
Former auditor-general Sheila Fraser trashed the program a few years ago in a report that set out in painstaking detail how Martin's Liberal government agreed to buy what are essentially undeveloped helicopters.
The theme cropped up again last month in a leaked independent report that the Harper government commissioned. The analysis said the helicopters were essentially still in development and the federal government should attempt to salvage the program within 90 days.
So far, the federal government claims it is owed $88.6-million by Sikorsky in penalties for contract violations.