The federal government has signed a $3.6-billion contract with European aviation company Airbus to replace its aging Polaris transport planes — one of which is used by high-ranking government officials, including the prime minister and the Governor General.
In addition to the VIP service, the Royal Canadian Air Force uses the Polaris planes for air-to-air refuelling and personnel transport.
The five planes have been flown by the RCAF 437 transport squadron since 1992 and the fleet’s lifespan is set to end in 2027. Government officials say extending that further would be extremely difficult due to the age of the technology.
The new fleet of planes, which will be named the CC-330 Husky, includes four new and five used aircraft that are being outfitted to feature the same capabilities.
The government bought the used planes from a company in Kuwait. Two of them are set to begin flying out of Ottawa International Airport this fall.
One of those is painted in a style similar to that of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s current plane and is expected to be delivered this summer. Officials would not say whether it will be ready for use in September, when Trudeau is expected to attend the G20 summit in India.
Aging fleet has caused problems
The aging Polaris fleet has caused issues for Trudeau throughout his time in office.
A problem in October 2016 required the aircraft to return to Ottawa 30 minutes after taking off with Trudeau, who was en route to Belgium to sign the Canada-Europe free trade deal.
In October 2019, the VIP plane rolled into a wall while being towed into a hangar at 8 Wing Trenton, sustaining “significant structural damage to the nose and right engine cowling,” according to the Air Force.
Looking good! Canada’s first Strategic Transport CC-330 aircraft showing off its Canadian livery in France, before it flies back to Switzerland. Arrival of the aircraft in Canada is scheduled for this summer. <a href=” <a href=”https://t.co/mvdNZUcLEf”>pic.twitter.com/mvdNZUcLEf</a>
The plane was out of service for several months that year. A backup aircraft was used to take Trudeau to the NATO summit in December 2019, but it was grounded in London when the Air Force discovered a problem with one of the engines.
Canadian crews have been training to fly the new aircraft in the United Kingdom since January. On average, it takes about three months of training for a Polaris pilot to be ready to fly the new Airbus, National Defence officials said in a background briefing for reporters on Tuesday.
Two of the used planes were purchased for $102 million US last June and the remaining three were bought this month at a cost of $150 million US.
The Airbus contract includes advanced training devices and a full flight simulator, which will eliminate the need to send crews to Germany to train twice a year, officials said.
The Husky planes will be able to perform air-to-air refuelling for Canada’s NATO allies, including F-35 fighter jets and the U.S. Air Force’s fighter jets. Canada has committed to buying 88 F-35 planes, which are set to be delivered starting in 2026.
Defence Department officials said the fleet will be housed at three bases — one in the east, one in the west and one in the north — but they have not yet determined exactly where those will be.
New infrastructure is part of the contract as well, because the planes are about 50 per cent heavier and 50 per cent wider than those in the current fleet. The government is looking at commercial sites and existing National Defence properties as part of that work.