What is it with Canadian governments and military aircraft?
They just can’t seem to get it right. The current tizzy over the über-expensive F-35 fighter procurement is nothing new.
The Diefenbaker Conservative government’s decision to scrap the all-Canadian Avro Arrow supersonic fighter in 1959 and even chop up the existing prototype aircraft for scrap is perhaps the most famous example of a Canadian government’s military un-airworthiness.
(Dief has just joined NORAD and needed the money to buy American fighters with nuke-tipped missiles. As a result, one of the best, fastest fighters in the world was killed before it had a chance to shine, roughly 30,000 Canadian workers were affected as the country’s aerospace industry was gutted, and NASA got to the moon and beyond with the help of hundreds of recently unemployed Canadian aeronautic engineers and technicians who joined the southerly brain drain. Thousands more ended up designing and building the commercial American jetliners we fly on today.)
And we’re still paying the price for the Chretien Liberal government’s decision in 1993 to cancel the Mulroney Conservatives’ deal for state-of-the-art EH-101 marine search and rescue helicopters to replace the military’s then-aging fleet of Sea-King and Labrador choppers.
(Now, 20 years further on, we’re still waiting for delivery of most of the problem-plagued Sikorsky CH-148s the Liberals picked instead of the EH-101s. And Canadian air crews are still risking their lives flying 27 decrepit Sea-Kings held together with chewing gum, bailing wire and jury-rigged replacement parts.)
But this legacy of high-flying, low-performance ineptitude by Canadian governments actually goes back almost to the beginning of manned flight.
Consider the fate of the Silver Dart.
You remember the Silver Dart — it made history as the first heavier-than-air machine to fly in Canada when it danced off the ice of Bras d’Or Lake near the Cape Breton home of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell in February 1909.
The Silver Dart was one of four airplanes designed and built by the Aerial Experimental Association, a non-profit group formed in 1907 by “Alec” Bell with four young air pioneers and financed with $35,000 (almost $1 million in today’s money) by Bell’s wife Mabel, who came from a wealthy family and to whom Bell had given almost all of his own stock in the Bell Telephone Company as a wedding present.
The other four members of the AEA were: Douglas McCurdy, son of Bell’s personal secretary and a recent University of Toronto engineering graduate; Frederick “Casey” Baldwin, a friend and engineering classmate of McCurdy; Glenn Curtiss, an American motorcycle enthusiast and expert on gas engines; and U.S. Army Lt. Thomas Selfridge, an early flying advocate who was seconded to the AEA project with the help of Bell’s cousin-by-marriage, then-president Theodore Roosevelt.
Members of the AEA, from left: Glenn Curtiss, Casey Baldwin, Alexander Graham Bell, Tom Selfridge and Douglas McCurdy.
All four of the AEA’s experimental aircraft were built and tested at Glenn Curtiss’ workshop in Hammondsport, N.Y., with each of the designs incorporating lessons learned from the previous models. The Silver Dart, the fourth and most technically sophisticated of the group’s flying machines, first took to the air at Hammondsport in early December 1908.
By that time the AEA was down to four original members since Tom Selfridge had died in September as the result of a crash in a Wright Brothers Flyer which Selfridge was checking out for the U.S. Army.
After New Year 1909, the Silver Dart was dismantled, crated and shipped to Bell’s home base in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, where it was re-assembled.
The historic first powered flight in Canada took place from frozen Bras d’Or Lake in front of Bell’s house on Feb. 23, 1909, with McCurdy at the controls. Further test flights by McCurdy and Baldwin took place at Baddeck throughout February and March.
Glenn Curtiss had not accompanied the Silver Dart from Hammondsport to Baddeck and the Canadian members of the AEA were surprised to learn in mid-March that Curtiss had formed a commercial aircraft manufacturing company with another aviation experimenter, Augustus Moore Herring (who later successfully sued the entrepreneurial Curtiss for stealing his ideas and cheating him).
When Curtiss would not respond to a request for a meeting, the other members of the AEA formally dissolved the association on March 31, 1909. As far as Bell was concerned, the AEA had served its purpose: When the non-profit group ceased functioning, Bell turned over the Silver Dart and all patent rights related to the airplane design (but not its engine, which was a Curtiss design) to McCurdy and Baldwin, who were determined to continue development of the airplane in Canada.
Based on the Silver Dart design, the partners built two more aircraft — the Baddeck I and Baddeck II.
And this is where the Canadian government comes in.
Bell, McCurdy and Baldwin petitioned Ottawa and the Canadian military establishment for support of the flying venture throughout the spring of 1909. Ottawa would not put up any front money but invited McCurdy and Baldwin to demonstrate their aircraft at newly established Camp Petawawa in the Ottawa Valley that summer.
The young engineers duly crated up the Silver Dart and Baddeck I and shipped them by train and horse-drawn wagon to Petawawa, arriving at the camp on July 1, 1909.
There the planes were re-assembled with the help of Royal Canadian Engineers and testing began on the Curtiss engine. McCurdy and Baldwin were ready to take to the air by Aug. 2, while the official aeronautical trials were set for a few days later. The “airfield” at Petawawa really was a field — a rough, sandy area of relatively flat ground used primarily for cavalry training exercises. That terrain accounts, to a large extent, for what happened next.
Photos of the Silver Dart at Camp Petawawa in 1909, from the CFB Petawawa Military Museums.
On Aug. 2, 1909, the Silver Dart was wheeled out to the field and McCurdy and Baldwin climbed aboard for what is officially considered the first passenger flight in Canada. Despite getting stuck repeatedly in the sandy soil of the “airfield,” the pair managed to get aloft five times.
Unfortunately they only landed safely four times. On the fifth landing, the Silver Dart’s wheels hit rough ground and crashed. McCurdy and Baldwin received only minor injuries but the Silver Dart — the historic first powered aircraft in Canada — was damaged beyond repair. It would never fly again.
McCurdy and Baldwin turned to the Baddeck I, installing the salvaged Curtiss engine from the Silver Dart. The Baddeck I never really found its comfort zone in the air, probably because the engine was placed too far back and the plane’s weight distribution was off-kilter.
Nevertheless, the Baddeck I was deemed ready for the official trials before military brass, government officials and members of the press and public on Aug. 12 and 13.
One short flight took place on Aug. 12 before high winds and the young flyers’ concerns about the aircraft’s handling grounded it for the day.
Most of Aug. 13 was spent making adjustments to the Baddeck I and waiting for the high winds to subside. In the early evening, the air did become calmer and McCurdy and Baldwin climbed into their flimsy machine once more. As the unwieldy plane took off, its nose rose, dropped and the Baddeck I crashed. Again McCurdy and Baldwin survived without serious injury, but the plane’s propeller, rudder and running gear were all smashed.
McCurdy and Baldwin again crated up their aircraft and returned to their workshop in Baddeck to make repairs, hoping to return to Petawawa for further, more successful flight trials. The invitation never came: The government decided to take a pass on what was deemed an overly expensive, risky gamble which had virtually no apparent military application.
In dismissing the folly of flight, Lt.-Col. Sam Hughes — later to become Canada’s World War I minister of militia and defence — wrote to McCurdy: “The aeroplane is an invention of the devil and will never play any part in the defence of the nation, my boy.”
So Peter MacKay, it seems, isn’t the first Canadian defence minister to show poor vision when it came to seeing the future of Canadian military aircraft.
An F-35 tricked out in RCAF colours. Unfortunately it’s just a wooden mockup — possibly the closest the RCAF will ever come to owning a real F-35.
For the record, I think the new analysis of options just ordered by the government will probably conclude that the F-35 is still the RCAF’s best bet for a state-of-the-art fighter to replace its current aging fleet of CF-18s.
The F-35 is in the process of becoming the best, most-advanced multi-function fighter in the world. Its got that cool stealth thing going and avionics to make gamers drool and it’s made in North America which — like it or not — is a big advantage, when it comes to warranty work, over appliances made on other continents.
Of course it is ridiculously expensive and way, way over budget. All new military aircraft are. That’s not the Harper government’s fault: They were just along for the ride as Lockheed Martin sucked billions of unplanned (but not really unexpected) extra dollars out of the U.S. government. It is the Harperites’ fault they got into a bullshit PR numbers game. But those aren’t the numbers I’m really concerned about.
The numbers that worry me are related to the flight range of the F-35.
I would like to think that the RCAF’s primary concern is defending the sovereignty of Canadian airspace — not engaging in foreign adventures in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In reality, defending the sovereignty of Canadian airspace means defending the sovereignty of airspace over the Canadian Arctic.
The range of the version of the F-35 Canada could/would be getting is 2,200 km. Despite all its other advantages, that range puts the F-35 at the bottom of the pecking order when it comes to top-end fighters currently flying.
The French Rafale has a range of 3,700 km. The Russian Su-35 supposedly has a range of 3,600 km. The British-German-Italian Eurofighter Typhoon has a range around 2,900 km, as does the American F-22 Raptor.
In other words, the F-35 could fly from Winnipeg to Toronto, but the Typhoon and Raptor could fly from Winnipeg to Montreal and the Su-35 and Rafale would make it well past Quebec City.
The F-35′s 2,200-km range means, by my calculation, that one taking off from CFB Cold Lake in northern Alberta could not fly to the Arctic Circle and make it back to base on one tank of gas.
Now what use is a jalopy like that (I ask you) if protecting Canadian Arctic sovereignty is a principal task of our air force? What use is “stealth” capability if you can’t get to where stealth is needed?
UPDATE: The very knowledgable Wayne Thompson tells me the listed range for the F-35 (and the other aircraft mentioned) is for internal fuel tanks only. The range can be extended substantially with the use of external tanks and/or inflight refueling. “External tanks negate the stealth of the F35 but since they drop those going into combat their stealth returns,” Wayne writes. “But I don’t think they need stealth in Canada and certainly not chasing 50-year-old Soviet bombers.”