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Scheduling issues force Feds to keep Challengers

Aug. 25, 2014, Ottawa - The Harper government’s plan to decommission four of its six C-144 Challengers was sidelined and revisited last year because the executive jets were getting more VIP and military use than thought.


August 25, 2014
By The Canadian Press

Former defence minister Peter MacKay, in early 2013, ordered the
majority of the aircraft, long cast as a symbol of Liberal excess by the
Conservatives, be retired within the year as they reached the end of
their service life.

But newly released memos, written last fall, show the plan was scaled
back to the deactivation of two planes – something the government
waited until after Parliament recessed in late June to announce.

 

The
Challengers are tasked with shuttling around the prime minister, the
governor-general and cabinet ministers, as well as being an air
ambulance for members of the military.

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What the air force found
after Mr. MacKay issued the order was that it couldn’t deliver both with
just two planes because there were “multiple scheduling conflicts for
Challenger support amongst Code One (Very, Very Important Persons),”
according to a four-page analysis, dated Oct. 31, 2013. Military
planners were quietly asked to study options and based their analysis on
the “requirement to maintain the current level of service and
availability provided to Code One VVIPs,” said the document, obtained by
The Canadian Pressunder access to information legislation.

 

Among
three options debated was the idea of buying used Challengers from the
“depressed business aviation market” to create a “homogenous fleet.”

 

The
reason the four aircraft, the CL600 and CL601 variant, were to be
retired was because they were almost 30 years old and their 1980s
electronics – relying on analogue rather than digital technology –
restricted where they could fly.

 

A briefing note prepared for Rob
Nicholson, the current defence minister, recommended buying new
up-to-date Challengers much like the CL604 variant, of which Canada has
two.

 

A single fleet “is the most cost effective and therefore
recommended option,” said the documents, because it is “the only method
that can ensure a 99 per cent availability rate for two concurrent
(lines of operation) in support of (air ambulance) and Code One VVIPs.”

 

The
report concluded that it would be cheaper in both maintenance and
personnel “when compared against the mixed fleet option,” which the
Tories appear to have accepted.

 

If supported, the air force said
it would work through the department’s defence capabilities and program
management boards to find a “source of funding.”

 

A further memo –
dated Nov. 18, 2013 – from the country’s top military commander, Gen.
Tom Lawson, to Nicholson left the decision entirely in the minister’s
hands.

 

The jets have a storied history of being used as political footballs.

 

The
Conservatives claim they’ve cut the use of the Challengers by 75 per
cent compared with the Liberals, but it’s tough to verify those numbers.

 

National
Defence was asked on Friday if it planned to decommission any more
Challenger jets, and if not were upgrades planned for the two oldest
jets to make them conform to new international standards.

 

In both cases the answer was, No.

 

“For the foreseeable future the intent is to maintain four Challenger jets,” said Maj. James Simiana, an air force spokesman.

 

There is also “no active project to purchase additional Challengers.”