Canadian Air Force snags plane parts from museum to fix ailing aircraft

The Royal Canadian Air Force had to get creative when seeking out essential parts for its search-and-rescue airplanes, and found a quick fix by raiding a plane at Canada’s National Air Force Museum.

In July 2012, air force technicians used the navigational units from an old Hercules plane on display at the museum to install in a similar plane still in use, the Ottawa Citizen reported Monday.

The National Air Force Museum on the Canadian Forces’ Trenton Base in Ontario features a large collection of retired military aircraft.  Museum curator Kevin Windsor told the Citizen that classified equipment is typically taken off the display planes, but the museum tries to keep the aircraft as close to operational as possible to give visitors an authentic experience.

The search-and-rescue squadron at the Air Force base in Trenton contacted the museum’s executive director, retired Lt. Col. Chris Colton, to ask permission to examine the Hercules, in search of two inertial navigation units.

The crew was looking to take the units from the museum’s airplane and install them in an H-model Hercules, which could be anywhere from 20 to 40 years old. An E-model C-130 Hercules transport aircraft that entered service in 1965 and was given to the museum in 2011 was a good match.

“They sort of called [Colton] up and said ‘Hey, we have these two INUs [navigation units] that we can’t use. Do you have any on yours?’ ” Windsor told the Citizen.  “Some of the parts are interchangeable. They just kind of got lucky on that.”

It only took about 30 minutes for air force technicians to remove the units. “They’re two boxes, maybe a little bit smaller than a computer printer,” Windsor said. “They’re not huge things. They just sort of popped the cords and away they went.”

Discovery of the trade shines a light on the challenges military personnel face in keeping Canada’s aging search-and-rescue planes flying, after more than a decade of government promises to replace them.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson raised concerns last spring that the federal government’s search-and-rescue capabilities are in danger of crumbling, especially the air force’s eight Hercules and six Buffalo planes, which are at the end of their flying careers.

Defense Department officials were told in a secret 2013 briefing that the military had been forced to “purchase spare parts from around the world” to ensure the “continued airworthiness” of the air force’s 47-year-old Buffalo airplanes.

The airplanes respond to thousands of emergencies across the country every year.

Defense Minister Rob Nicholson’s office defended the decision to ask the museum for parts to keep its search-and-rescue planes in the air.

“The RCAF took the initiative to remove these functional, perfectly good parts and use them effectively,” spokeswoman Johanna Quinney said in an email. “It was a sound decision, helping to ensure the long-term viability of the aircraft.”

But former head of military procurement Dan Ross said it’s “embarrassing” that the military has to “cannibalize old stuff that’s in museums” to keep planes flying.

Successive Liberal and Conservative governments have been promising to replace the Hercules and Buffalos starting in 2002, but whether new aircraft will actually materialize remains unclear.