04/15/2014 05:08 EDT | Updated 06/15/2014 05:59 EDT

Critics wonder what the air force is giving up with new Cyclone contract

OTTAWA - The New Democratic opposition and a defence expert say they want to know what sort of compromises the air force might have to swallow in order to accept its long-delayed maritime helicopters.

A series of government and defence sources revealed this week that public works had struck an agreement with the U.S. manufacturer of the CH-148 Cyclone helicopters to amend the purchase contract.

The renegotiated deal — the third since the helicopters were ordered in 2004 — paves the way for the retirement of the air force's 50-year-old Sea King fleet.

As part of the internal exercise leading up to the new deal, the air force was asked to revisit its list of expected Cyclone capabilities and told to spell out clearly what aspects they "required" as opposed to what they "desired" in the new helicopter.

NDP defence critic Jack Harris said that's troubling and he wonders what expectations the air force was forced to lower.

"It raises a lot of red flags for me," Harris said on Tuesday. "I know Sikorsky has had contract problems, but we shouldn't be dropping requirements that may be related to the safe operation of the aircraft."

Harris said he's not been able to get a straight answer out of Defence Minister Rob Nicholson on one of the most pressing concerns, notably the requirement for so-called run-dry capability in the gearbox.

The issue of how long the helicopter's engine can operate after suffering a catastrophic loss of oil has been a recurring consideration since the civilian variant of the Cyclone — the S-92A — was involved in a fatal crash off Newfoundland in 2009.

An investigation determined the gearbox in the helicopter — an offshore oil rig transport — had suffered a massive fluid leak and did not continue running for 30 minutes as expected in the requirements. The accident left 17 people dead.

Harris wrote Nicholson on Nov. 5, 2013 seeking assurances that the Cyclone wouldn't face the same problem.

The minister wrote back on Jan. 28, 2014 that the National Defence had thoroughly reviewed the accident and "initiated a series of measures to minimize the probability of a similar occurrence" with the Cyclone.

But Harris said the response is a long way from a clear-cut guarantee that the helicopter will have a 30 minute run-dry capability, as spelled out in the military's statement of requirements.

Nicholson's letter explicitly stated that the government would not accept "a helicopter that is not sage to fly."

Documents uncovered during an investigation last fall by The Canadian Press found the run-dry issue was of concern to air force evaluators even before the CH-148 was selected in 2004.

Michael Byers, a University of British Columbia political science professor and defence expert, said both National Defence and Public Works owe to the people in uniform and taxpayers to lay out in clear, uncomplicated terms what the air force is giving up and how it will affect future operations.

He noted the timetable to begin retiring the Sea Kings and begin flying the Cyclones coincides with next year's federal election timetable.

"The risk here is political pressure and the possibility that mistakes were made that could — over the 30 or 40 year life span of these helicopters — cost Canadian lives," said Byers.

Harris said both departments should appear before the House of Commons defence committee to answer questions before the contract is signed.