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Canada buys Obama's reject Brit choppers for spare parts

Lesson for the Royal Navy and RAF?

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Canada has snapped up a rejected fleet of US presidential helicopters, intending to break up the choppers for spare parts to keep its own search-and-rescue aircraft flying. The British forces may wish they had struck such a deal, as they too operate the "Merlin" copter in large numbers - and they too have severe difficulties in getting parts.

Corporate art of the new Marine One in presidential paintjob

You'll think we've gone crazy down here at Barack Obama's factory-second helicopters!

The helicopters sold to Canada are the so-called US101 version of the EH101 aircraft developed during the 1980s and 1990s in the UK and Italy by companies which are now grouped as AgustaWestland. The UK forces, after massive delays and cost overruns, eventually received two versions, both known as "Merlin" - a naval submarine-hunting variant and a cargo or troop-carrying one for the RAF. Both types finally reached frontline useability around 2004-2005, but their availability rates have been poor: perhaps due to the fact that the Merlin didn't sell well worldwide and thus parts were at a premium.

However the Merlin did sell to the Bush administration, which was seeking to replace its ageing VH-3 Sea King presidential helicopters operated by the US Marines (the president's chopper becomes "Marine One" when he is aboard, just as his airforce-operated plane becomes "Air Force One"). But the US101 project, managed by Lockheed on behalf of AgustaWestland, soon became mired in cost and time overruns every bit as bad as those which had hit the Royal Navy's HM1.

The plan might well have been doomed from the outset, with requirements calling for 14 VIP seats, hardening against electromagnetic pulse, an executive washroom and communications equivalent to "a flying Oval Office" - a pretty big ask for an aircraft which can only lift four tonnes in its RAF cargo-carrying incarnation*.

The US101 problems became bad enough that each new Marine One copter was projected to cost as much as an Air Force One jumbo jet, and the costs became an issue in the presidential election - with both Mr Obama and his opponent John McCain vying to issue the strongest condemnation of the aircraft. Obama in particular described it as "procurement amok", and unsurprisingly it was axed as soon as he took office.

Now the Canadians, who also operate the EH101 under the name "Cormorant", have snapped up the former presidential fleet of nine aircraft for $164m.

"This package is considered an excellent one-time opportunity for the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces to address long-standing CH-149 Cormorant fleet availability issues related to the availability of spare parts," a Canadian defence spokesman tells the Ottawa Citizen.

Canada has struggled to keep its Cormorants in the air, finding that it needs a fleet of 18 aircraft to do the same work that was formerly done by a smaller number of copters.

Britain has also seen unimpressive availability from its Merlins. No more than four or five have generally been available for use in Iraq and now Afghanistan out of a fleet of 28, despite the hosing-down of maker AgustaWestland with extra support cash. The British forces, with their desperate lack of helicopter lift, may very well be wishing that they'd snapped up President Obama's rejects ahead of the Canadians. ®

Bootnote

*The Royal Navy HM1 also fails to impress in the matter of lifting power, being unable to get airborne vertically or achieve a hover when fully loaded with weapons and fuel. At sea, its carrying ship must steam so as to provide a suitable wind over the deck: ashore a pilot must taxi forward rapidly to get airborne fully loaded. (Helicopters generate more lift when their rotors are beating air which they haven't already churned up, which is why forward motion through the air reduces power requirements.)

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

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