It has been 21 years since the distinctive ‘wokka-wokka’ sound of Canadian Chinooks was last heard in Canadian skies.
This year, however, the big, tandem-rotor, heavy-lift helicopters will be heard once again, especially over Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, Ont. This time, though, Petawawa will not simply be a waypoint for the Chinooks while en route to tasks in support of the Canadian Army; it will be the permanent home for the new fleet of CH-147F Chinook helicopters.
On May 18, 2012, Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced the reactivation of 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron as home to Canada’s new fleet of 15 advanced CH-147F Chinook helicopters. The unit will fall under the command of 1 Wing Kingston, Ont., as do the other RCAF tactical aviation squadrons.
The personnel and aircraft of 450 Squadron will regularly operate across the country in continuous support of Army readiness and training activities. To this end, 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group (2 CMBG) is the Army’s designated formation to specialize in training for and conducting air mobile operations. Given its motto of By Air to Battle, it is fitting that 450 Squadron be based at the home of 2 CMBG’s air mobile specialists.
450 Squadron’s relatively short but intriguing history has its roots in Canadian Army service. It made the transition through the Canadian Forces unification era and was most recently reactivated as part of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Immediately following the Second World War, Canadian Army planners began to consider air transport to supplement traditional ground- and water-based resupply. After a false start in implementing a fixed-wing flying truck, and with the notable advances made in rotary-wing technology, the Canadian Army decided to pursue helicopters as a means to increase its ability to support soldiers in the field.
As the contract for new helicopters lagged, pilots and technicians began their training in 1952, on existing early-model helicopters. It was not until 1960, that the RCAF ordered six Boeing Vertol CH-113 Labrador helicopters — a tandem-rotor, turbine-powered aircraft designed for search and rescue operations. At the same time, the Canadian Army also ordered 12 CH-113A Voyageur variants that were more suited for tactical field operations. Delivery of both helicopter types began in 1963.
Early that year, the Canadian Army authorized the formation, within the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps, of 1 Transport Helicopter Platoon (1 THP) — or “1 Thump”, as it was affectionately known. 1 THP became operational with the newly acquired Voyageur helicopters in December 1963, at RCAF Station Rivers, Man., and later moved to RCAF Station St. Hubert, Que., in 1966.
A new designation
With the integration of the three services into the CF in 1968, CF headquarters tasked the commanding officer of 1 THP with selecting an air force numerical designation for the unit. The commanding officer, proud of the unit’s Army heritage, was reluctant to accept one of the previously established RCAF unit designations.
Upon discovering that designations up to and including 449 had already been assigned to RCAF squadrons, the commanding officer requested approval to use the next sequential numeric designation of 450; he was refused.
With a change of command, the newly assigned commanding officer appealed the previous decision. This time, the CF approved the numerical designation of 450, subject to Royal Assent. It was formally granted in 1970, the same year that 450 Squadron moved from St. Hubert to CFB Uplands at Ottawa, Ont.
It was only after Royal Assent had been granted that CF leadership discovered a Royal Australian Air Force squadron had carried the designation 450 during the Second World War. But because Commonwealth coordination of air force squadron numbering had expired after the war, there were no legal or procedural requirements for the CF to verify if the designation had been previously used by another air force.
The Canadian designation stood and 450 Squadron members bonded with those of 450 Royal Australian Air Force Squadron Association. Many who served in either squadron still keep in touch today.
Winds of change are blowing
After more than a decade of service with 450 Transport Helicopter Squadron, the CH-113A Voyageur helicopters were replaced in 1974, with eight Boeing CH-147 Chinook helicopters. The similarly configured, yet much larger and more powerful Chinooks served across Canada for almost two decades at CFB Uplands and CFB Edmonton, Alta.
In January 1979, 450 Squadron’s Alberta detachment was stood down and 447 Tactical Helicopter Squadron was reactivated to continue Chinook support for operations in Western Canada. In April 1991, it was disbanded, making 450 Squadron (Uplands) the last to operate Canada’s original CH-147 Chinook helicopters. The Chinook was finally withdrawn from service that autumn. 450 Squadron continued to operate CH-135 Twin Huey helicopters in support of the RCMP and Joint Task Force 2 after the Chinook’s retirement.
When 450 Squadron celebrated more than a quarter century of service in 1994, Governor General Raymond Hnatyshyn presented the unit with its Standard. But just two years later, 450 Squadron was deactivated after almost three decades of uniquely tactical aviation (helicopter) service to the CF, and its Standard was retired to the atrium at Air Command (now 1 Canadian Air Division) Headquarters in Winnipeg, Man.
Henceforth, 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron would provide aviation support to Canadian special operations forces out of CFB Petawawa, Ont.
Chinook reprise: a capable craft
The eventual return of the Chinook helicopter to CF service began in late 2005, when the Medium- to Heavy-Lift Helicopter (MHLH) Project was established (originally under the name Tactical Aviation Lift Capability or TALC) in response to government initiatives. The project was to provide a medium- to heavy-lift helicopter capability to support land forces (Army) and other CF capabilities.
Operational requirements to lift the Army’s inventory of newer equipment — particularly the air-transportable 155-mm Howitzers — narrowed down potential replacement contenders. In the summer of 2006, the Government issued an advance contract award notice of its intent to pursue procurement of a fleet of Chinook helicopters based on the American CH-147F Chinook.
Specific operational requirements that the Canadian Chinooks would have to fulfill in support of the Canada First Defence Strategy, included the ability to:
- transit over broad areas of Canadian territory, such as the Arctic, without relying on fuel caches, which were previously available but are now less environmentally acceptable;
- operate reliably in remote and isolated areas with minimal technical support equipment; and
- operate in threat conditions where potential enemy and environmental hazards could be expected.
Accordingly, the Canadian CH-147F Chinooks will be equipped with extended-range fuel tanks, an upgraded electrical system and aircraft survivability equipment in the form of enhanced counter-measures for self-defence, optical navigation aids and advanced avionics systems. These capabilities will ensure 450 Squadron is able to operate across Canada’s vast land mass and in combat operations abroad.
With respect to RCAF capabilities, 450 Squadron personnel will be trained to optimize the employment, maintenance and support of their own CH-147F Chinooks, as well as integrate into composite operations involving other 1 Wing units and other RCAF aviation and aerospace capabilities.
The CH-147F brings impressive capability on its own, but in many scenarios, its relevance and impact to overall air power effects will only be achieved as part of a team effort with other assets. With Chinooks added to the mix, Canada’s tactical aviation enterprise will continue to fulfill its role of integrating with the Canadian Army to provide aerial mobility, reconnaissance and firepower.
In June last year, the first Chinook successfully completed its maiden test flight at a Boeing test facility and kicked off the year-long test and evaluation phase of the program, which comprises both ground and test-flight activities.
The second Chinook began this phase in September and completed its first test flight. This phase of the program will continue over the next year with a combined crew of Boeing and CF test pilots. One aircraft is undergoing air vehicle flight testing in Mesa, Arizona, while the second aircraft undergoes electronics and avionics testing at Patuxent River, Maryland.
An initial cadre of 450 Squadron’s eventual 400 personnel arrived at CFB Petawawa last summer. The full complement of personnel is planned to arrive over the next few years. As part of 1 Wing’s overall tactical aviation force, 450 Squadron personnel and Chinooks will take their place operating alongside their fellow squadrons (equipped with CH-146 Griffon helicopters).
As well, 450 Squadron’s permanent home — a new 50,000 square metre hangar — is being prepared for occupancy concurrent with the planned arrival of the first production aircraft in the summer of 2013. The squadron will share the southeastern portion of the Mattawa Plain in Petawawa with 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron.
Initial activity will focus on standing up the RCAF’s own operational training capability as a necessary step to moving on to operations as quickly as possible. Squadron capabilities will be achieved in stages, with full and sustained mission capacity anticipated in the 2017 timeframe.
The return of the Chinook to Canadian skies as an integrated element of an overall national tactical aviation capability represents a quantum leap in tactical aerial mobility for the Canadian Army and RCAF operations.
After living without this impressive capability for nearly two decades, it can’t come soon enough.
LCol Duart Townsend is the first and current commanding officer of the reborn 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron. LCol (ret’d) Lorne Rodenbush was the first commanding officer assigned to 450 Heavy Transport Helicopter Squadron and in the past served as honorary colonel of the squadron.