Leonardo has been awarded a contract covering the midlife upgrade of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s fleet of AW101 Cormorant search-and-rescue helicopters. Worth C$1 billion ($740 million), the contract was negotiated through the company’s UK division and will be conducted by Team Cormorant, a Leonardo-led consortium including local companies IMP Aerospace and Defence, GE Canada, and Collins Aerospace Canada. At the same time, a contract was awarded to CAE for the provision of associated training aids.
“The CH-149 Cormorant helicopter is a critical asset for search and rescue operations in Canada,” said the country’s Minister of National Defence, Anita Anand. “These contracts provide the best solution for Canada to upgrade its fleet and provide the accompanying training tools to our aviators so that they can continue to keep Canadians safe now, and in the years to come.”
Canada began its Cormorant Mid-Life Upgrade (CMLU) program in 2012. Following an analysis of options, Leonardo was selected as the sole-source contractor in 2018, but in 2020 the company’s bid was rejected on cost grounds. An updated Leonardo proposal was delivered in March last year, leading to the contract award.
CMLU covers the 13 existing Cormorants, but also adds three additional helicopters to be built by Leonardo at Yeovil in the UK. Most of the upgrade work will be performed at IMP’s Halifax facility in Nova Scotia, which houses the stored VH-71s that were procured from the U.S. They had been built for use as “Marine One” presidential transports but were subsequently rejected in favor of the Sikorsky VH-92 and were purchased by Canada as a source of spares. Under the original CMLU plan, three of them were to be restored to flight, but in the event new airframes are being acquired. However, parts from the VH-71s—including transmissions, landing gear, and control surfaces—will be used in the upgrade program to save costs.
The modernization covers system and equipment upgrades—including those to ensure compliance with emerging airspace requirements—and brings the aircraft to a similar standard to Norway’s AW101-612s. As well as state-of-the-art avionics and a new glass cockpit, the Cormorant will receive a wireless intercom, digitally controlled engines, a new electro-optical/infrared sensor, and a cellphone detection/location system. Following CMLU the life expectancy of the fleet will be extended to at least 2042.
Locally designated CH-149, the Cormorant was first delivered to Canada in 2001 to replace Sikorsky CH-124 Sea Kings and Boeing Vertol CH-113 Labradors (a version of the CH-46 Sea Knight), with the first operational sorties being flown in the following year. Two of the original 15 were lost in accidents. The fleet has now racked up more than 100,000 flight hours, a significant proportion of the 500,000-plus hours flown by the global AW101 fleet.
Cormorants currently serve with 442 Squadron/19 Wing at Comox in British Columbia, 103 Sqn/9 Wing at Gander, Newfoundland, and 413 Sqn/14 Wing at Greenwood, Nova Scotia. The three additional CH-149s will allow 424 Sqn/8 Wing at Trenton, Ontario, to upgrade its capabilities, which currently rely on the Bell CH-146 (412) Griffon.