RCAF search and rescue crews operating in one of the most challenging environments received an early Christmas present December 2 in the form of two government contracts which will see three more CH-149 Cormorant helicopters added to their fleet as the original 13 receive state-of-the-art upgrades.

Announced today by Defence Minister Minister Anita Anand and Public Services and Procurement Minister Helena Jaczek, one contract for up to $1.168 billion has been awarded to Leonardo U.K. Ltd of Yeovil, England, the Anglo-Italian helicopter manufacturer. The other, worth $78 million, went to CAE, the Montreal-based global simulator giant.

Delivery of the upgrades and training systems are expected to begin in 2026 with the rejuvenated fleet expected to be fully operational in 2029.

The CH-149s have been in service since 2001 and have required periodic upgrades to remain operationally effective. The Department of National Defence said the additional enhancements will make the originals equivalent to “the most advanced” version of the helicopter, the AW101 612 recently procured by Denmark, for SAR work. “Using this already established configuration accelerates the project considerably,” DND said.

The three additional aircraft will be derived from a variant of the original AgustaWestland AW101s offered to the U.S. for presidential transport as the VH-71 Kestrel but eventually rejected due to cost issues and, when sold to Canada at fire-sale prices in 2009, essentially put in storage. The plan is to use “predominantly new parts” and some used parts such as transmissions, landing gear and control surfaces from the VH-71 and current CH-149 fleets “to reduce costs and ensure value for money.”

DND also highlighted CAE’s role. “Our aircrews will have dedicated training capacity in Canada that is representative of our modernized fleet,” it said, “and will no longer need to travel to the United Kingdom to train on simulators that may not be consistent with our aircraft.”

As the helicopters are rotated through the new program, the bulk of round-the-clock operations will continue at the three coastal SAR bases, augmented by the addition of Cormorants at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, Ontario.

Two coastal bases are in Atlantic Canada. From Gander in Newfoundland and Labrador, 103 SAR Squadron’s Cormorants cover the Lower Arctic, the Maritime provinces and their offshore regions, and parts of eastern Quebec. Operating out of Greenwood, Nova Scotia, 413 Transport and Rescue Squadron uses Cormorants and a Lockheed Martin CC-130H Hercules fixed-wing transport to cover 1.8 million square miles of land and ocean ranging from the High Arctic to the mid-Atlantic.

On the West Coast, 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron at Comox on Vancouver Island has Cormorants and European CC-295 turboprops. It covers most of British Columbia and the Yukon as well as more than 216,000 square miles of the Pacific up to 600 nautical miles offshore. (The squadron was honoured in November by the Honourable Company of Air Pilots, based in Britain, for its deployment of a Cormorant to airlift more than 300 motorists trapped by landslides on a highway in the province’s southern interior.)

In announcing the contracts, Anand cited her mandate letter from  Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a year ago when she was appointed. “The top item[…] is to ensure that the Canadian Armed Forces has the capabilities, equipment and culture needed to implement the objectives in our Defence Policy,” she said. “The CH-149 Cormorant helicopter is a critical asset for search and rescue operations in Canada – and 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.”