09/15/2011 05:24 EDT | Updated 01/12/2012 02:09 EST

DND worried Sikorsky might cut corners to deliver new maritime helicopters

OTTAWA - Defence Minister Peter MacKay was warned the manufacturer of the air force's new maritime helicopters might be tempted to cut corners in the rush to get the long-delayed program back on track, say internal documents.

"The remaining elements for the interim (maritime helicopter) delivery are all safety related and it is crucial that DND remain diligent to ensure Sikorsky does not take inappropriate risks to keep schedule," said a Nov. 23 briefing note.

The advice came soon after a scathing report by the auditor general, who'd singled out the CH-148 Cyclone program for delays and cost overruns.

Less than three weeks after Sheila Fraser's assessment, U.S. helicopter giant Sikorsky advised the federal government it wouldn't meet a Nov. 30, 2010, deadline to land the first helicopter for "limited training and operational testing."

Officials vented their frustration in the note, portions of which were underlined for emphasis. It urged both politicians and defence officials to take a deep breath and not get involved in any further debate -- or request changes.

"It is also paramount that DND not interfere or influence the conduct of activities, as this would provide Sikorsky rationale for excusable delay."

Ottawa's $5.7-billion plan to buy 28 new helicopters to replace the geriatric Sea Kings, which fly off the decks of warships, have been hit with repeated delays.

"National Defence did not adequately assess the developmental nature of this aircraft, and the risks related to cost," said the report of former auditor general Sheila Fraser.

A spokesman for Sikorsky played down the briefing note comments, saying defence officials were just reminding everyone of the importance of following the proper procedures.

"Safety is the highest priority for everyone working on this program," said Paul Jackson.

"As evidence, we voluntarily grounded the Cyclone aircraft ourselves during sea trials when a problem was detected, despite the schedule implications of that decision."

The first Cyclone was delivered for flight testing at the air base in Shearwater, N.S., last May, almost six months behind the last agreed schedule and years off its original target date.

The CH-148 design is based on Sikorsky's existing and commercially successful S-92 helicopter, but producing a military version has been a daunting task for engineers.

The missed deadline last fall represented the second time Sikorsky had fallen short on its promises after it was originally supposed to deliver fully certified helicopters to the air force in late 2008. Just before that deadline, Ottawa agreed to a contract extension to 2012.

After that first delay, the government and the company agreed that "interim" aircraft would be available on Nov. 30, 2011, in order to allow the air force to train crews. Those helicopters would not include all the necessary software to conduct a full-range of missions and would not have the ability to exchange tactical data with its home ship.

Defence officials noted with the Nov. 30 deadline looming, several critical matters remained incomplete, including the submission of engineering reports that allow defence officials get airworthiness certificates.

In order to help the process along, the defence project team set the lowest "most basic level of airworthiness certification," which restricted the helicopter to flying over land and only during daylight. Even with those restrictions, the deadline couldn't be met.

The frustration of defence officials boiled over last spring with the threat to impose $8 million in contract penalties.

Like Sikorsky, defence officials played down the frustration in a written statement.

The Maritime Helicopter Program "faced its share of challenges; completion of the project is taking longer than expected," defence spokeswoman Kim Tulipan said.

"However, the government, the Canadian Forces and Sikorsky are collectively working towards delivering the fully compliant helicopters starting in June 2012."

Her response brushed aside questions about safety by saying "efforts are underway to complete and validate the appropriate airworthiness certification documentation."

Tulipan noted that the government has not formally accepted the helicopter and Sikorsky remains the owner. She said the test aircraft has completed limited trials for landing on ships.