Maintenance Is King With Choppers

Mar 19, 2003
Months of work finally get Sea Kings flying
By BEVERLEY WARE / South Shore Bureau

SHEARWATER - I snap the buckle securely into place, taking a seat behind the pilot of aircraft 406. The panels of orange, red, blue and purple switches remind me of a child's game. It's hard to believe this helicopter was a mere shell just a few weeks ago.

"If we have any problems, I'll grab you and we'll take off in a hurry," Maj. Charles Brunet says over the headset. "It's just a precaution."

I take small consolation in the green first-aid pouch near my head as a technician wheels a blue barrel filled with fire suppressant by the open door. It's "just in case," Maj. Brunet assures me, and rarely ever used.

We're about to begin the chopper's first ground test after a six-month maintenance overhaul. It will be the first time the engines have been fired up.

Why the seatbelt when this is supposed to be a ground test, I wonder.

"In case there's an imbalance of some sort, you've got a huge mass here rotating," Maj. Brunet says.

The chopper alone weighs over 6,800 kilograms, then there's another 2,200 kilograms or so of fuel and equipment.

Moments later, I realize the seatbelt is, indeed, a good idea.

Maj. Brunet grabs hold of what looks like a metal tube, twists and pushes it, and one of the engines roars to life. An imbalance is apparent within moments as the engine revs up to speed. The vibrations feel like when a tire on your car is seriously out of balance.

After two seasons inside a hangar, the chopper is wheeled back in for an engine change.

The Sea King, known as Canada's warhorse aircraft, has been criticized, scoffed at and ridiculed. The military helicopters were even used as a political football 11 years ago when new prime minister Jean Chretien cancelled the previous Mulroney government's $5.8-billion deal to replace them.

The Liberals paid $500 million in cancellation costs and have now posted a call for tenders on a $3-billion plan to replace the aging Sea King fleet.

Just last fall, the military ordered a halt to all non-essential Sea King flights after two aircraft temporarily lost power while hovering. That ban has just been lifted.

One Sea King crashed onto the deck of a destroyer, forcing the ship to return to Halifax after it had set sail for the Gulf of Oman.

Each of the 40-year-old helicopters requires 30 hours of maintenance for every hour spent flying. The regularly scheduled maintenance overhaul is supposed to take 60 days, according to government standards. But in reality, it usually takes 80.

"It seems like it's a very high number, but when you see day to day what these guys do, all that time adds up," says Capt. Richard Loewen, the man in charge of the three crews of technicians working on our chopper.

"There are so many things that go into the maintenance of an aircraft. It's very, very complex. You can't understand how complex it is unless you see it."

This newspaper decided to find out exactly what is involved in maintaining a Sea King helicopter.

The military insists the maintenance schedule is no reflection on the age of the aircraft, though it does concede shortages of spare parts and manpower mean delays.

Day 1 - July 10

Aircraft 406 is towed across the runway at Shearwater and pulled tail-first into D hangar, which will be its home for four months - if not longer.

It's coming in 30 hours early because of a problem with its main gearbox. That gearbox and the blades have already been removed - a warning light had alerted the pilot to a possible problem.

Each chopper gets an inspection called a supplementary check every 25 flying hours. It takes up to three hours to complete. After 24 of those, the aircraft gets a massive inspection, called periodic maintenance. By then, the chopper has flown for about 650 hours over the course of two to three years. It's this four-month periodic inspection that we follow.

After three of those major overhauls, the chopper goes to IMP, where it is stripped down to the bare metal and rebuilt over eight months.

Contributing to the 30 hours of maintenance time for every hour of flight are the regular before-and-after flight checks that take anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes. They include checks of the landing gear, engines and tires.

"The clock starts ticking as soon as the rotor starts turning," Capt. Loewen says.

That helps put the 30-hour figure in perspective, says Master Cpl. Rick Gallant, the aviation technician running this periodic inspection.

"No job on the aircraft takes less than an hour."

There are kilometres of bundled white wires to be checked, replaced or repaired. When you see the depths of the military's maintenance requirements, "you start to understand," Capt. Loewen says.

Once the chopper is nestled into its home for the coming months, the crew removes everything from the seats to the engines, transmission and sonar.

Day 2 - July 15

All parts are double-checked to make sure they're disconnected and unhooked before they're lifted out.

First to come out are the armament cartridges, because they have a small explosive to activate systems such as the winch and crash position indicator.

As the aircraft is torn apart, everything is put into different areas, intricately labelled and checked centimetre by centimetre for signs of wear and tear. Each part, from the engine to the rescue net that pulls people out of the water, is checked meticulously.

After everything that can be removed is, crews check the shell of the aircraft for cracks or rust.

"They check every nook and cranny for corrosion or cracks that may have developed," Capt. Loewen says. "Cracks are not unusual because a helicopter has a lot of vibrations, but with 40 years of history, we've got a pretty good idea of what we're looking for."

The chopper may be four decades old, but other than the frame there's little left that is actually 40 years old, Capt. Loewen says.

The engine, transmission and gearbox have all been upgraded within the past five years.

Once everything is removed, the crews move into the snag phase - fixing anything they find wrong. In this case, it means sending the gearbox back to the contractor because it has reached its limit of 1,700 hours of flying time and replacing it with a new one.

Technicians are handed a detailed work list and various crews set about inspecting and making any repairs to the structure of the chopper, the fuel cell, the flight controls, the two engines, the entire electrical system, the life-support system, the electronic equipment and the armament systems.

As the technicians work, they are training others to eventually take their place. It takes four years to attain authorization to work on the Sea King without constant immediate supervision. Shadowing other technicians is the way to get that authorization.

"You need people with a lot of authorizations to do this efficiently and we don't have that," Capt. Loewen says.

Only about 40 per cent of the crew has that level of experience because of a backlog in military training.

A lack of spare parts also slows the crews down. That's in part because the federal government won't commit itself to a long-term contract with suppliers. There is little reason to do so, from the government's point of view, with new choppers on the books.

That means technicians end up "robbing" the parts they need from other aircraft.

"It's rob Peter to put Paul back together," Master Cpl. Gallant says.

"If an aircraft comes in here with a serviceable radar, out it comes into an aircraft that needs it," Capt. Loewen says. "If another aircraft needs it, it's coming off there."

Our chopper has already been robbed of its door and blades. Other common "thefts" include engines, landing gear, hydraulic lines and cockpit gauges.

"If there are none in supply and we can't manufacture it, we rob it," Capt. Loewen says.

But in the end, it just means more maintenance delays because the robbed aircraft has to wait until another part turns up in the supply system.

It's frustrating, Master Cpl. Gallant says. In one case, a Sea King has been in the bay for four months but is still waiting for a replacement engine. Another chopper has had 25 parts robbed from it, including a receiver and transmitter and a headrest.

"We could knock three weeks off maintenance if the parts system worked," Master Cpl. Gallant says. "It's supposed to take three days to get a part in. It can take two to three weeks, or even two months."

It's added aggravation for technicians who hear public grumblings about the safety of Sea Kings.

"I realize a lot of the criticism is directed at the bureaucracy, but it's a blame game and it always comes down to our level," Master Cpl. Gallant says. "The hammer always comes down on us. That's why a lot don't want to talk to the media."

Day 3 - Aug 27

We're almost into the installation phase. Everything from the electrical components to the rescue hoist has been checked, but all parts must be checked yet again before they are put back into the chopper to ensure they work as they did in the shop.

The main rotor head and gearbox seem to be working fine, and crews are getting the tail pylon ready to mount on the back of the aircraft.

Once these teams have checked and double-checked everything in its place, a quality control team will go over all the systems yet again before the chopper goes outside for its all-important ground test.

Today, technicians are aligning the driveshaft that runs from the main gearbox to the tail. The shaft turns at 3,030 revolutions per minute so its crucial that everything is aligned perfectly. A new computerized system has helped turn that six-day job into a four-hour job.

The driveshaft is ready to go back onto the helicopter, but the crew is waiting for bolts that are long enough. They had to place small shims under the unit that attaches the tail rotor to the chopper to ensure perfect alignment.

"When you start looking at things like this, it's no wonder there are delays," one technician says.

Sgt. Steve Pye leads the team of 30 technicians working on this Sea King. He meets with the master corporals to discuss what else they can work on while they wait for the bolts.

At least the tedious work of checking the kilometres of bundled white wiring for nicks and cracks is done. If they're lucky, the technicians can get away with replacing as few as 15 of the 15-metre wires. Sometimes, they've had to replace up to 60. On this one, they've replaced 25, Cpl. Bruce Layden says.

They've also checked the instruments and mission systems, which include the radios and radar and navigation systems, and all the parts have been calibrated.

But no one can tell for sure if the systems will work properly until they are reinstalled.

"This is when we earn our bread and butter," says avionics technician Cpl. Kevin Reid.

Cpl. Doug Grover was working on Sea Kings when the federal government cancelled the contract for its replacement in 1993. Delays in getting supplies and spare parts are aggravating but the aircraft is as safe as any, he says. Almost 700 Sea Kings are operating around the world - U.S. President George Bush flies in one - but they are used for search and rescue and general use, not military operations, Cpl. Grover says.

Many are looking forward to the new choppers. While the contract will be awarded this summer, the first of the fleet won't take to the skies for four years, and the second 27 months after that. It will be a decade before the whole new fleet is ready, which means these Sea Kings still have a lot of work ahead.

"They're just old and tired," says Cpl. Dan Didham. "There are always more and more problems to the point the simplest task turns into a week-long chore."

Day 4 - Oct. 28

The major components are back in the aircraft and the ground run is set for Nov. 7. Capt. Loewen says the crew hopes to be sending aircraft 406 on its way Nov. 21 after the chopper is tested in a hover, then in forward flight.

But the tests take longer than expected, and the next week the system for folding the blades doesn't work. The final test is put off to Nov. 27.

Day 5 - Nov. 27

All is in place and there's a sense of anticipation as aircraft 406 is towed out into daylight for the first time since July for its first ground test.

Only the military's most experienced pilots carry out ground runs.

"Everything's going to go in super slow action," Sgt. Pye says as Maj. Brunet, his co-pilot and the ground crew start up the new engines for the first time and test the rotor head for vibrations.

Cpl. Rob Taylor runs analysis on the vibrations of each engine and the tail rotor gearbox and checks the track and balance of the five main rotor blades. They must fly within 2.5 centimetres of each other with the main rotor head turning at 203 r.p.m.

"There's a certain frequency at which the components operate and they must perform within that set of parameters," Cpl. Taylor says. "The computer system compares the readings to the parameters so they'll know if there are any malfunctions or concerns.

"It could be the engine won't come within the limits, and then it's just pulled. If the adjustment doesn't come within the parameters, it's pulled, the same with the driveshaft or anything else."

But on this day, there's no need for a computer to tell us there's a problem. No sooner does the engine start to get up to speed than we're thrown violently back and forth.

Eventually - after too long for my liking - Maj. Brunet shuts everything down. We step onto the tarmac to see a small but steady stream of clear synthetic oil running down the outside of the aircraft, over the window, dripping to the ground.

Cpl. Taylor grabs a flashlight, pulls open a flap on the side of the chopper and stands on the platform, unscrewing another panel in the raw November wind. Maj. Brunet hops up and hands him a tool bag.

It turns out there's a minor oil leak from a main gearbox supply line that requires some tightening, and a mechanical link in the automatic stabilization system - which accounted for the lurching - has to be adjusted.

"It's different every time," says Maj. Brunet, who says all the findings are normal. "It's all part of the tweaking process with an aircraft so that it meets all the standards."

Day 6 - Jan. 9

The ground check is complete and the compass has been realigned as the chopper heads out for its first hover check today. After an initial battery of tests gives the all-clear, technicians retorque everything, change the oils again and tighten screws.

The operational crew then comes on and does its own full systems check before the helicopter is signed off and handed over - finally - on Jan. 23.

Two companies are eligible to bid on the federal government's contract to build 28 state-of-the-art helicopters - Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. of the U.S. and EH Industries of England. They must have their applications in by April 30 and the winning bid will be announced this summer.

Most technicians don't offer a preference.

"Whatever the decision," Master Cpl. Gallant says, "I know the final decision is going to be political and we'll have to deal with it."
Finally the press gives a reason for the 30hr maintenance/1hr flight ratio.

As for robbing Peter to pay Paul I recall being on a base with an idle 206 that lost it's boost pumps one day ,then a door then it's trgb and so on & so on to the point it was easier to put it on a truck back to the main base for a 1200 hr inspection rather than put it back together again.

:elvis: :elvis: :shock: :elvis: :elvis:
Im just curious. What would the total airframe time be on a high time Seaking.
Cheers Mini.................
I've heard they range around 18000 hrs.

the math from the numbers they give can be anywhere from 8000 to 15000 (650 hours every 2 - 3 years over 40 years)

Still young in anyones mind.
Just curious but how many hours are on the ex "Okie" now CHC S61 C-FOKP.

( the last helicopter "Elvis"worked on in My Okie days)

:elvis: :prop: :elvis:
I believe in excess of 30000 I'm sure. Hopefully someone who's wrenching it or flying it can be more specific.
Here's a question for you military types:
Why is it that the military has so much trouble keeping the seakings in the air when there are many civil variants (S61's) flying on the west coast moving logs and doing other very strenuous work but still going strong??? I don't know much about how the SeaKings are used in the military but I assume that pulling stumps off a mountain 10hrs a day is a lot harder on an A/C than patrols/search/rescue.
It's also important to note that the helilogging S61's spend their fair share of time in hangars during the off season (all that hard work has to catch up to the A/C sooner or later) but I don't think it adds up to 30 hrs of maintenance for every hr flown.
This is by no means a put down of our military. If it was up to me, our military would've been a pretty good department to spend the money that was instead wasted by the Liberals back east. The time to stop neglecting what was once an internationaly recognized military organization is long overdue! I'm just asking because I've never heard anybody compare the two, in terms of how the maintenance is done and how the budjets are spent. <_<
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2. Avionics from 1963 largely un upgraded since puchase. (Ever see a 100 lb ADF?)
4. The "Hangar" Moves Constantly and the bird never gets a rest when it is on the boat
6. Years of training in OEI from the hover and autorotations, also "manual dips" (aggressive manoevers in ASW)
7. Did I mention SALT WATER? We don't just fly over it. We hover IN it. . . a lot.
Aren't there any water rinse procedures you can do for the saltwater exposure??
Again, I'm not trying to be a smarty pants, I just have no idea.
The boys at McDonnell Douglas on the 500 course were big on spraying the M/R head with some sort of spray of which I forget the name but it was something like ACF50 or W40. They enphasized the need for A/C flying off of tuna fishing boats to be sprayed with this stuff as soon as they landed on the boat before they shut down. There must be something you can do to combat the salt. I wonder what the heli-logging ships do when they dump their logs in the drink off the coast. Surely they must be exposed to some sort of corrosive elements.
lmao, 407D!!!!! :up: :up:

but remember all... no viagra within 24 hrs of aspirin with asa... big no-no...

so if you got a headache from a sea king, use ibuprofen... :D