A plan to purchase one model of search and rescue airplanes for the entire country will end up putting people on Canada's west coast in danger because the craft aren't suited to the terrain, says an expert on government procurement.
On June 29 Michael Byers issued a report through the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives on the shortcomings of Canada's military procurement, including failures to purchase desperately needed equipment.
Byers is a professor at the Political Science Department at UBC and once ran for the federal New Democrats in Vancouver Centre. He has been a vocal critic of the federal government's planned F-35 purchase.
Last month he told The Tyee another shortcoming of the Harper government's military procurement strategy — its plan to purchase long-range, fast, fixed-wing aircraft for search and rescue duty across Canada.
He said such aircraft may be fine for the East Coast, but British Columbia needs something different.
"We need a plane that can fly lower and slower and can turn more sharply than these bigger, faster planes," said Byers.
Buffalo aircraft currently being used have been successful on the west coast because of their ability to fly slowly and manoeuver in tight quarters, giving it an edge on search and rescue detail in B.C.'s valleys and inlets.
With those aircraft more than 50 years old the government has been in a controversial process to replace them that even included accusations of rigging the request for proposals to manufacturers to favour larger aircraft, such as the Italian-built C-27J.
That, alleges Byers, is so they can pull double duty for the Canadian military overseas.
Canada-built planes a better fit: Byers
An updated request for proposals was released in April and Byers said the craft suited to the request is consistent with planes like the C-27J.
He said that doesn't help B.C. and suggests Canada purchase locally made aircraft, such as the new Viking Twin Otter built in Victoria and for long-range missions the Bombardier Q400.
Byers said the Twin Otter is already being built and sold specifically for rescue capabilities in other countries.
"The solutions are there and yet our government in its pigheaded way is pressing forward toward a single aircraft for all of Canada," he said. "The specifications have been written in such a way to exclude the Viking aircraft and the Bombardier."
One such requirements written in the RFP required a rear ramp so that rescuers could parachute out of the plane, but that's an old method of search and rescue used before long-range helicopters existed and has been phased out in developed countries except Canada, according to Byers.
Neither the Bombardier nor Twin Otter has such a ramp, though Byers said Twin Otters are used for skydiving schools because people can leap out of the side.
But purchasing new helicopters that can winch people on and off after aircraft have spotted them is a far better way to conduct a rescue than parachuting rescuers out to wait with those being rescued, he said.
Decision could raise risks in B.C.
Byers said ultimately the decision to choose speed and size over nimbleness and the ability to fly slowly will endanger the hikers, prospectors, fishing vessels and others that depend on search and rescue craft when they're in a jam.
"The Harper government is about to make a decision that will deny us that essential service," he said. "We will get big, fast military grade aircraft that cannot turn fast enough, that cannot fly low enough in the kind of conditions we have on the West Coast to provide that extra capability."
Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories at www.thetyee.ca.
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