Friday, 10 May 2013

PERSEVERANCE: Some Reflections on 50 Years of the Canadian SEA KING

 A public lecture on the remarkable record of the Canadian Sea King helicopter was presented at the Maritime Museum of BC by Colonel (Ret’d) John Orr at 12pm on Wednesday, May 8, 2013 in the historic Vice-Admiralty Courtroom in Bastion Square

Col. John Orr completed five operational tours on the Sea King helicopter culminating in the command of 423 Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron. After completing appointments as the Deputy Commander Maritime Air Group and the Maritime Air Component Commander (Atlantic), he retired from the Canadian Armed Forces and is currently a Research Fellow with the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Colonel Orr has just completed writing the history of the ‘first’ 50 years of the Canadian Sea King, prepared for the Golden Anniversary of that aircraft which will be celebrated in Shearwater, Nova Scotia on 31 July – 1 August 2013. The book draws on official documents and published material as well as more than 70 oral history interviews with those who have supported, maintained and flown this capable helicopter.

What might have been considered an esoteric subject drew a considerable audience consisting of serving members of the military, retired veterans of the Sea King community (many of whom appeared to be acquainted with Col. Orr) and interested spectators ( including one naval architect, self described as the designer of the Costa Concordia ).

Given time constraints Colonel Orr could only touch briefly on a few high points of the Sea Kings long career. A long career indeed as the Colonel pointed out that the R.C.N. at 103 years old this year, has used the Sea King for almost half that time. His lecture started with a description of the early years.

On 1 August 1963, the first two Canadian Sea Kings arrived at Shearwater. Originally they were acquired by the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) in 1963 to operate in an anti-submarine role from the aircraft carrier HMCS Bonaventure and the destroyer-escorts of the St. Laurent and succeeding classes.

A unique characteristic of Canadian Sea King operations was the use of a medium-sized helicopter with a destroyer-escort sized warship. This development was a Cold War response to Soviet conventional and nuclear-powered submarines and the threat that they posed to the sea lines of communication between North America and Europe. The integration of Sea Kings with Canadian warships was believed to be impossible in some quarters. When Canadians were able to make it work it improved the combat capability of the ships by greatly extending the range of their sensors and weapons. This “DDH concept” was made possible by another Canadian invention, the Helicopter Haul down and Rapid Securing Device (Beartrap).

Also covered in the lecture were the events of August 1990. In an incredible two-week period the anti-submarine equipment of six Sea Kings was removed and new equipment installed in support of a surface surveillance role during OP FRICTION in the Persian Gulf. The ability to compress months of effort into such a short period was a tribute to the Sea King community whose awareness of recent developments in maritime helicopter aviation was critical. Also critical was the skill and 24/7 hard work of technical personnel in carrying out the installation in a safe and timely manner. The proof of the excellence of their work was later evident in a phenomenal mission availability and completion rate of 98%.

OP FRICTION was only the beginning of a new era in Sea King operations. In 1992, Sea Kings were again bound “East of Suez” onboard HMCS Preserver; this time to Somalia and the OP DELIVERANCE. While this operation is largely remembered for the travails of the Canadian Airborne Regiment, what is largely unknown is the truly incredible role played there by the Canadian Sea Kings. The logistic capabilities of the Sea Kings were on display as they delivered over 300 tons of supplies. They performed reconnaissance missions, both day and night, for the battle group as well as route clearing sorties. Medivac missions also became routine.

The new millennium saw no slacking in the pace of operations and the operational tempo for the Sea King. Col. Orr highlighted 2010 as a “typical non-typical” year. In that year OP CARIBE saw counter drug operations in the Caribbean. Sea Kings flew disaster relief missions both home, in Newfoundland after a devastating hurricane, and abroad where they were instrumental in Canadian relief efforts in OP HESTIA, our mission to Haiti.

 In OP PODIUM Sea Kings provided security for the Vancouver Olympics while in OP CADENCE, the G-8 and G-20 Conferences, Sea Kings flew every kind of mission including providing low level air defence against slow movers. At this point Col. Orr pointed out that until then he had always said that Sea Kings could perform every kind of Air Power mission accept standing air defence patrols, but that even this was possible with a Sea King.

In that same year Sea Kings supplied Search and Rescue assets on both coasts when the Cormorants were temporarily grounded.  Even with all these activities they continued performing their normal functions of generating aircraft for coastal patrols and naval deployments around the globe.

Col. Orr had started his lecture with the admonition that we not conclude from his remarks that we did not need to replace the Sea King with the newer Cyclone helicopters as soon as possible. It was easy to understand afterwards why that preface was necessary. After hearing about the many ongoing accomplishments of the Sea King it might almost seem that what Canada needs is not a new marine helicopter but rather to acquire more Sea Kings!

Col. Orr’s lecture was interesting, entertaining and informative. For this writer, however, it is how this look at the past helps us to chart future courses that is of most interest.

Looking back on those 50 years of Canadian service by the Sea King, a number of conclusions can be made. The Sea King, despite its age, continues to make a positive contribution to supporting the interests of Canada and Canadians both domestically and overseas.

The reasons for this are the aircrews and maintenance personal who have consistently demonstrated flying skill, ingenuity and stamina in keeping a sometimes recalcitrant aircraft flying without compromising flight safety and dedication; often thrust into last minute deployments to foreign environments and for missions for which they had little or no training.

When asked about the progress of Cyclone procurement Col. Orr assured the questioners that he knew as little about it as any one else but he was of the opinion that at this point the whole thing was in the hands of “the lawyers”. At this point a low groan could be heard across the room.  He also said that initial planning for a Sea King replacement envisioned 1975 as the year it would happen.

Col. Orr also pointed out that after the origional purchase of some forty Sea Kings there were still 27 aircraft left. It should be noted that the total number of Cyclones to be purchased is 28. No room for attrition there. It should also be noted that if the CH-148 Cyclone should stay in service for even half the time the mighty Sea King did it will be counted a success. The one thing that is certain is that if the Cyclone is in service twenty-five years from now Sea King experience tells us that the roles it will be performing will be something planners today have not even thought of. Let us hope that it will be sufficient flexible to do the job.