By Stephen Degraef
Photos by Edwin Borremans
MANITOBA, CANADA’S CENTRAL PROVINCE, HAS OFFERED since the early 1940s almost unrivaled training facilities (and memories) to countless generations of young pilots and seasoned instructors.
Although present Manitoban flying training centers are a far cry from the World War Two-era "pilot factories," the province’s vast flight training areas are still used intensively to train future 21st century fixed-wing, multi-engine and helicopter pilots of the Canadian armed forces.
Located 45 mi. west of Manitoba’s capital of Winnipeg, Southport Aerospace Center at Portage-La-Prairie houses the Canadian Aviation Training center, which since the late 1990s has been operated under a contract from the Canadian Department of National Defense by Bombardier Aerospace.
Known within Canada’s military aviation community as 3 Canadian Forces Flying Training School and part of the CFB Winnipeg-based 17 Wing, this unit conducts basic flying training for all Canadian military pilots. Basic training is carried out at Portage on 12 civil-registered Slingsby T-67C Fireflys. Once pilots have completed their Firefly training, pilots move to CFB Moose Jaw in Saskatchewan to train on the more capable and demanding Raytheon CT-156 Harvard 2 during Phase 2 of the NATO Flying Training Center. Bombardier also runs that initiative, which trains pilots of various NATO air forces. At the conclusion of this phase, students are "streamed" to training as fighter, transport or helicopter pilots. All transport and rotary-wing students return to Portage for additional advanced flight training on the Raytheon KingAir C90 or the Bell CH-139 JetRanger 3.
On March 30, the National Defence Dept. picked Kelowna Flightcraft Ltd. of Kelowna, British Columbia to succeed Bombardier as the winning bidder for a potential 22-year, $1.77 billion Contracted Flying Training and Support contract for the Canadian Forces. The department said the award "heralds an exciting new era for the community of Portage."
Under the terms of the contract, Kelowna, leading a consortium of Canadian companies known as Allied Wings, will provide the Canadian Forces with long-term primary flight training, and specialized helicopter and multi-engine fixed wing pilot training. The contract requires the provision of all support activities including aircraft and simulators, construction of new flight line, ground training and classroom facilities, and the provision of aviation and student support services. The program will become fully operational after a 14-to-24-month transition period.
To achieve the 3 Canadian Forces Flying Training School’s mission objective of being recognized as a world-class flying training organization that produces skilled pilots for the Canadian Forces and other nations," the Portage-based Basic Helicopter School conducts the NATO center’s Phase 3 Rotary-Wing advanced flying training for undergraduate and initial pilots. Today, this school is staffed by 16 male and female flight instructors, each having gained experience in helicopter operations in some of the world’s harshest meteorological and air-traffic conditions over the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Canada’s northern territories. Some of the school’s instructors re-enlisted after a flying career with a civilian helicopter company, which gives the school a mix of experiences in maritime, tactical airlift, search-and-rescue and civilian offshore support operations.
For more than 20 years, the Basic Helicopter School has operated the off-the-shelf civilian IFR-rated Bell 206B JetRanger 3 (known as the CH-139 in Canadian Forces service). The aircraft is a widely used initial turbine trainer, flown by such services as the U.S. Army and Navy. The first of 15 CH-139s arrived at Portage in May 1981 to replace the less powerful CH-136 Kiowas in the elementary training role.
As part of a Contract Flying Training and Support contract signed in 1992 with Bombardier, the school’s 14 remaining CH-139s and their spare parts were leased to Bombardier as the prime contractor. Flown by military instructors and maintained by Base Aircraft Maintenance Engineering Organisation, a subcontractor to Bombardier staffed mostly by ex-military helicopter mechanics, the 13 remaining CH-139s today fly up to 7,900 hr. a year.
Bombardier is committed under the contract to having nine CH-139s available on the flight line each day. That includes one used by the Central Flying School at CFB Winnipeg for its staff to maintain proficiency and for students there to take their instrument check-pilot course.
Initially, the JetRangers were delivered in a "catchy" green/yellow livery to emphasize their training mission. Immediately after their lease to Bombardier, the aircraft received civil registrations (in the C-FTH_ range) and were certificated as civilian helicopters. Finally, in an attempt to standardize the color schemes on all Canadian training aircraft, the JetRangers began receiving in early 2004 a glossy blue livery standard for the NATO fight-training center. At the same time, all military markings (including the word "Canada" on each side of the fuselage) were removed. The last three digits of the former military serial number were painted on the nose and fuselage of each aircraft, giving the JetRangers a more corporate look. On average, these aircraft have flown 11,000 hr.
Every year, up to 40 students start helicopter training on one of five annual courses. Traditionally, each course starts with 11 days of ground school, including lectures on aerodynamics, aircraft operating instructions, flight procedures, flight safety and emergency procedures. With the ground school done, the students get 26.8-hr. of "clear hood" flight training, including nine solo flights. As always, successful completion of the first solo (flown after 10.8 hr. of dual instruction and the other "clear hood" tests are the first hurdles for students to clear.
Flights are conducted in three vast, sparsely populated and unobstructed training areas, all within 5-10 minutes flying time of the base at Portage. Almost every day, students and instructors train on autorotation techniques at the nearby Grabber Green.
During the second part of the training, advanced "clear hood," instrument flying, map-reading navigation and formation-flying is taught. While on instrument flying training, an additional forward-orientated visor is mounted on the student’s helmet, limiting forward visibility, literally forcing the student to focus on the instrument console in the lower centre of the cockpit. Once assigned to operational units, all Canadian military pilots will be required to fly in adverse, sometimes white-out conditions or night missions with limited air traffic control support. Up to 18 instrument flying missions are flown during this phase. The second greatest pitfall during the student’s quest for his coveted helicopter wings is the 1.1 hour-long final map-reading navigation test.
Armed only with the "Eyeball Mk. 1 optical sight," an elementary on-board stopwatch and an outdated map, the overstressed student has to pinpoint several navigational features and turning points hidden in the monotonous landscape, deprived from usable visual reference points (rivers, road crossings, tree lines, etc). The maps used during the training flights are similar to the standard Canadian military aviation maps and provide the students with a taste of what they will be using operationally in Canada and overseas. At the same time, the student has to continuously monitor and adapt his or her airspeed to the (unfortunately) ever-changing winds, making hours of homework before the test cruelly futile. This experience will force them to conduct more accurate map reconnaissance later on during the navigation-phase.
Considered unjustified and financially unsound by some, the elimination of capable pilots after failing their navigation tests sharply illustrates the Canadian Forces’ primary–and unquestionable–objective to train "thinking pilots" capable of surmounting externally- induced problems and challenges during their operational helicopter flying careers.
Having flown some 93.4 hr. on the JetRanger, students graduate and receive their much desired wings before assignment to an operational helicopter training unit and–finally–their operational squadrons.
Since the Canadian Forces nowadays have more helicopters then fixed-wing aircraft in their overall inventory, almost 80 percent of all Canadian students having started their initial training on the Slingsby Firefly trainers will eventually return to Portage for multi-engine or helicopter training. More than 50 percent of these will be trained by the Basic Helicopter School.
Due to the high workload of the various operational army support CH-146 Griffon squadrons (humanitarian/peace-enforcement operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Haiti, etc), the age-induced technical availability problems of the obsolete CH-124A Sea Kings and the introduction of the new CH-149 Cormorant helicopters, "new-born" helicopter pilots often have to wait several months before starting their conversion on their newly assigned helicopter-type. While performing support duties within the BHS, students are able to remain proficient on the JetRanger.
In addition to training Canadian helicopter pilots, the BHS also trains foreign students. For decades a large number of Jamaicans have been trained at Portage under the Military Training Assistance Program (MTAP), created by the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Most of the MTAP students come from the Caribbean region. To illustrate Canadian-Jamaican cooperation, a Jamaican pilot instructor is attached to the BHS. Once graduated at the BHS, these Jamaican students will go to CFB Gagetown, New Brunswick, home of 403 Helicopter Operational Training Sqdn, to begin their conversion to the CH-146 Griffon, also operated by the Jamaica Defence Force.
To promote the international concept–and high quality–of the CATC and the BHS training syllabus, gradually an increasing number of foreign students are invited to Portage for initial helicopter training. In late 2004, two experienced Norwegian fixed-wing pilots (P-3C Orion and F-16 Fighting Falcon) were retrained at Portage to become Sea King helicopter pilots with the the Royal Norwegian Air Force.
All JetRanger instructor training is done by the basic school, training experienced pilots of all Canadian helicopter squadrons. To become an instructor, candidates must have completed an operational tour in an operational squadron and have obtained aircraft captain qualifications on their previous "mount." These are needed to make a vital link between the JetRanger training concept and the real-world operational workload.
Instructors fly frequent mutual check-rides to evaluate and upgrade each other’s instructing skills. A posting to the basic school at Portage is high on the wish list of many Canadian military helicopter pilots due to the busy but rewarding daily flying program. Almost all instructors fly at least two missions a day with their assigned trainees. Traditionally, instructors swap trainees half-way through the training syllabus.