It was one of the worst-kept military secrets this year, but the official announcement was made early Thursday morning: 19 Wing Comox has been chosen as the location for the training centre for the Fixed Wing Search and Rescue Replacement Project.
The announcement, made at CFB Trenton (Ont.) by Defence Minster Harjit Sajjan, along with Procurement Minister Judy Foote and the Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force Lt.-Gen. Michael Hood, was part of awarding the nearly $3 billion FWSAR contract to Airbus Defence & Space for its C-295 turboprop military transport plane.
“It is a huge relief to see that the whole thing has been done and that Comox has been selected as a training centre,” said retired Brig.-Gen. of 19 Wing Comox Fred Bigelow, a member of the technical working group who created a proposal for the federal government.
“If you can fly search and rescue in B.C., you can fly anywhere in Canada.”
In October, Hood told Vancouver media 19 Wing Comox was the chosen base for the facility, beating out 17 Wing Winnipeg (Man.), 8 Wing Trenton, and 14 Wing Greenwood (NS).
The replacement project is a federal initiative to not only replace the aging planes currently being used in search and rescue ops, but also to integrate to a single nationwide fleet. Currently, there are two types of SAR planes being used: the CC-115 Buffalo and CC-130 legacy Hercules.
The search for new planes to replace the almost half-century old fleet has been a long one – originally, it was the Paul Martin administration that began the hunt.
Bigelow said the Airbus C-295 is similar to the Buffalo, but “significantly different” to the Hercules, with a tight turning radius, and is very responsive.
“The aircraft itself – the engine, wings – that’s about the same (to the Buffalo), but the sensor sweep and how (search and rescue technicians) will search for lost airplanes, missing people, someone in the water, that’s going to be a huge change from the Buffalo; that (Buffalo) really relies upon visual search techniques and a bit of radar. This new aircraft will come with much greater capabilities to conduct searches.”
As part of the contract, Airbus will provide 16 of the planes, and has partnered with Newfoundland-based PAL Aerospace for maintenance and support services.
The initial contract for 11 years is valued at $2.4 billion. Should the federal government choose to exercise an option to extend the maintenance and support services for an additional 15 years, the contract value would increase to $4.7 billion.
“We are pleased to hear of Airbus’s plans to locate a flight-training facility and simulator in Comox. This will provide a tremendous benefit to small businesses and communities in the region,” said Shirley Bond, the provincial minister of jobs, tourism and skills, adding that B.C’s aerospace industry is the third biggest in Canada and generates $1.3 billion for the province’s GDP.
That’s not all – Coulson Aviation, based out of Port Alberni, signed a memorandum of understanding to provide the tanking system for the Airbus C-295 back in late 2015.
Coulson Group CEO Wayne Coulson said the announcement was good news for Vancouver Island.
“It is great news that Airbus has won the SAR contract from a Coulson perspective as we have an existing relationship with Airbus that we will continue to build,” said Coulson.
“There are significant opportunities for Port Alberni and Vancouver Island and it will be up to the communities and companies to draw in Airbus to support this multi-billion contract.”
Bigelow explained the economic benefits for the Comox Valley are significant.
“… when someone comes from Winnipeg say in January to conduct their simulator training … maybe they’ll bring their skis. Maybe they’ll take a week off and bring their family out and head up the hill and head to Mount Washington. It’s pretty sweet when your employer sends you out the recreation capital of Canada to do some work, and when the work is done, you can enjoy our local amenities, which isn’t going to hurt morale one bit.”
Comox Mayor Paul Ives said the project will directly see 30 high-paying jobs in the area in addition to “important spin-off effects from an investment like this.”
He expects the project to be at least a year and a half in the construction process, and the base could see groundbreaking within the next year.
Ives added he hopes to see planes arriving in 2019.
–With files from Katya Slepian