12 wing shearwater, n.s.—Master Warrant Officer Lin Vallis, a barrel-chested forty-eight-year-old with penetrating eyes and a neatly trimmed moustache, is a veteran of one of the toughest jobs in the Canadian Forces – maintaining the air force’s fleet of aged Sea King maritime helicopters. And while the Sea King has become synonymous with the sorry state of the Canadian military, Vallis admits that after spending the better part of his career working on them, he’s become more than a little attached to “the old birds.” In fact, he bristles at the first hint of criticism. “Yeah, it’s getting old,” he says, a hint of testiness creeping into his voice. “But it’s a good bird. It’s always got the job done, and we always make it safe.”
Jokes describing the Sea King as “ten thousand nuts and bolts flying in loose formation” or newspaper articles (including my own in the National Post) about one hapless Sea King taking more than two weeks to fly across the country set Vallis’s teeth on edge. “They need more work, more parts . . . but they get put through a lot of abuse, a lot of flying hours.”
The drafty, brightly lit main hangar of 12 Air Maintenance Squadron, across the harbour from Halifax, is Sea King Central. Here, the awkward-looking, battleship-grey helicopters are brought in for everything from quick tune-ups or minor repairs to periodic maintenance that involves almost entirely stripping down and rebuilding their two massive engines. The smells of oil, grease, and ozone fill the vast hangar as mechanics in air-force-blue overalls work intently on a handful of Sea Kings in various states of repair spread across the spotless concrete floor.
Lieutenant-Colonel Dave Mason, the commanding officer of the maintenance squadron responsible for all the Sea Kings across Canada, says his avionics technicians and aircraft mechanics are the only reason Canada has been able to get away with flying its shipboard helicopters for four decades. “It’s lasted as long as it has because of our maintenance personnel,” he says bluntly.
Mason admits the mechanics and aircrew have “a love-hate relationship” with the helicopters they have worked on, reconditioned, and rebuilt for so long. “It’s pride of ownership, I guess,” he says. “They take a lot of pride in what they do,” he says. “As well they should.”
But his men and women are starting to feel the strain of patching up an air-craft that requires an average of almost thirty person-hours of maintenance for every hour in the air. The personnel, in fact, are wearing out faster than the Sea Kings. “The experienced guys that I do have, I’m losing about half of them,” Mason says. “The end result is a significant loss of Sea King experience.”
When the military stopped recruiting during the budget cutting of the 1990s, it left a ten-year gap in the ranks of helicopter maintainers. New mechanics are being recruited again, but Mason says it takes almost two years to train them up to the basic levels needed to work on the Sea King. “On top of that they need another two years of on-the-job training before I can send them out to sea [aboard warships].”
But there is light at the end of the Sea King saga. The government recently announced the two finalists for the contract to replace them and has promised to award a contract by the end of the summer. But after more than twenty years of delay in replacing the helicopters, the Sea King crews are taking a wait-and-see attitude.
“Well, they can’t drag it out much longer, can they?” Vallis says with a shrug. “After twenty-two years, am I optimistic they’ll replace it before I go? No, not really.”
But he admits that the bulky grey helicopters (at more than seven tonnes, the Sea Kings are among the largest air-craft in their class) have become something of a family business. His twenty-six-year-old son joined the air force two years ago and is now working as a maintainer on Sea Kings in Victoria, B.C.
“Yeah, he followed the old man’s trade,” Vallis says ruefully. “But he enjoys it a lot, especially being out there on the West Coast.”
But until the federal government finally completes the two-decade-long procurement process, Vallis and his crew of technicians will have to wait for the chance to work on a helicopter that is younger than they are. Until then? “We keep fixing it. What else are we going to do?”