Helicopter Project

The purpose of the Helicopter Project is to replace the CCG’s ageing fleet of helicopters by procuring up to 24 helicopters.

Learn more about the CCG's Helicopter Project.

A pilot inside the cabin of a Candian Coast Guard helicopter

Helicopters in the Canadian Coast Guard support government-wide, mission-critical program responsibilities:

Air transportation services, particularly services provided by helicopters, are a key element in the CCG's readiness profile and response capability.

The Canadian Coast Guard supports its aviation service requirements by utilizing its own fleet of 20 rotary wing aircraft across Canada. These aircraft are strategically located at eleven bases across Canada.

Roughly 7 million Canadians live in coastal areas, where many people in smaller communities depend of the oceans' resources and tourism to make a living. In order to protect and serve these Canadians, the Coast Guard must rely on its air transportation services to respond to the challenges of this rugged and harsh environment.


A pilot inside the cabin of a Candian Coast Guard helicopter

Overall Concept of Operations

The CCG's ability to ensure the safety of marine traffic, a year-round responsibility, would be nearly impossible without helicopters. The overwhelming majority of flying hours logged by helicopters, approximately 65% of the CCG total, is devoted to supporting this responsibility. Icebreaking operations consume the next largest block of flying hours — about 15% of the CCG total. The balance, about 20% of CCG helicopter flying hours, is distributed among its other responsibilities to CCG programs and other government departments.

While the bases from which the CCG's helicopters operate are easily accessed by good roads, the equipment that Coast Guard Technical Services personnel must maintain from these bases is often not. Much of it is on remote Canadian shorelines or on islands, and only accessible by helicopters or helicopter/ship combinations.

The unwatched towers, complete with batteries, solar panels, lights, radio beacons and repeaters, upon which MNS and MCTS rely to ensure the operational safety of marine traffic, may be on points, promontories or mountain tops that have no roads to them. Usually, there is nothing else at the site but the CCG tower and its ancillary equipment. Inspecting or servicing a tower requires that one or more technicians, their tools and a stock of spare parts and/or construction materials be brought to the site. Even at sites where weather changes and wildlife are not factors, work accidents, must be considered. While a private charter service would want to leave the crew at the site to do its work, the CCG cannot do this. Its helicopter must usually remain with the crew until the work is done.

The ruggedness of Canada's coastline makes access by sea to those towers that are near the shore difficult and potentially dangerous. Surface vessels, which travel at only a few knots but burn significant quantities of fuel while doing so, are not practical when there are hundreds of kilometers of shoreline to cover, as along the St. Lawrence River. Helicopters can cover these distances quickly and they are vastly more fuel efficient.

These factors and consideration underlie the CCG's concept of operations with helicopters. It is a concept driven by the need to:

  • get to locations that are otherwise inaccessible, or that are very difficult and time consuming to access;
  • get to them quickly so that critical services are maintained as close as possible to 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year;
  • ensure the safety of personnel and the public, both while they are in transit and at the location; and,
  • do all the above at reasonable cost and with minimal resources.

Operating Environment and Challenges for Helicopters

The Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) carries out its responsibilities on a daily basis in some of the most demanding, challenging and severe operational and environmental conditions known:

  • a coastline of unparalleled length and ruggedness;
  • isolated or remote locations that are not accessible by conventional modes of transportation;
  • the sheer harshness of the environment in these locations often disrupts plans and priorities. Scheduled activities may have to be postponed or brought forward as a result of storm damage, and resources redeployed on short notice. Requires a flexible response capability for a successful operation;
  • interruptions and failures of marine aids to navigation, which the CCG is obligated to maintain and service, can have serious commercial, environmental and, for mariners, personal consequences, placing a premium on the ability to respond quickly and restore services;
  • constantly changing weather conditions necessitate a high degree of flexibility. When important missions have to be cancelled or curtailed due to adverse weather, we must be able to respond as soon as conditions improve to meet service targets and obligations;
  • operational requirements for speed and flexibility, both in the tasking of personnel and equipment, implies a degree of uncertainty in the work lives of the CCG's employees. The government's initiatives to foster wellness in the workplace and thereby mitigate the stresses of uncertainty for its employees means they must be supported by equipment that is well matched to the operational requirements of the work they perform; and
  • safety and financial considerations place restrictions on the working hours of technical and construction crews, making it imperative to minimize transit times so that the crew productivity can be maximized.

The CCG has responded to this challenge by assembling a well-trained, experienced and committed workforce, by deploying this workforce at strategically-positioned bases throughout the country, and by supporting it with a diverse and well-maintained fleet of surface, sea and air vehicles. Helicopters and the method in which they are used are an integral and essential component of this fleet.

Marine Navigation Services (MNS)

Utilizes helicopters to transport cargo and personnel to remote sites not accessible by any other means.

A Pacific region BO-105 supporting an MNS solar installation.

This CCG program keeps waters accessible by providing navigational aids, developing waterways, and protecting navigable waters.

This program:

  • sets up and maintains aids such as buoys, lighthouses and radio navigation systems, which help mariners pinpoint their location and avoid hidden dangers;
  • educates and trains mariners to use the system; and,
  • advises those who wish to set up private aids to navigation.

Approximately 65% of the flying hours logged by CCG helicopters in support of its responsibilities are devoted to supporting the MNS and MCTS programs. Helicopters enable the CCG to leverage the productivity of its highly-trained but limited technical resources in tasks that include:

  • planned and unplanned maintenance and servicing of marine aids to navigation;
  • lightkeeper crew changes and support;
  • installation and testing of new equipment at remote automated lightstations;
  • planned and unplanned maintenance of equipment at remote automated lightstations;
  • site inspections to determine structures and facilities which may require removal, for lightstations that are to be automated;
  • environmental assessment of sites for lightstations that are to be automated;
  • transfer of crews for either removal of structures and facilities or environmental clean-up of lightstations that are to be automated; and,
  • removal of large equipment (e.g., fuel tanks, diesel generators and engines, etc.) at lightstations that are to be automated.

Marine aids to navigation are often in out-of-the-way places. Access by conventional surface transportation vehicles may be permanently impossible due to lack of roads, temporarily impossible due to weather conditions at the time the aid must be visited (e.g., to repair a failed component), or may impose undue danger or hardship on technicians due to difficult terrain and the remote location of the aid. Travelling overland or over the sea to the aid may take several hours, necessitating an overnight stay, with attendant travel and or overtime costs. Sending a crew in by helicopter can often enable the work to be done during normal working hours, and may ensure that they return to base in time to undertake other work the same day. Helicopters therefore contribute to the efficient and cost-effective use of the CCG's skilled technicians.

Different regions face different challenges related to the accessibility of aids. Some have to deal with island-based aids. Others have sites that may be accessible by boat in the summer that are not accessible by boat in the winter. For others, mountainous terrain is an obstacle to be overcome. In still others, the vast expanse of the territory to be covered makes a timely response difficult if only surface transportation is available.

Marine Communications and Traffic Services

Utilizes helicopters to transport personnel and equipment in support of a vast network of remote communication facilities.

A Pacific region BO-105 supporting an MCTS installation on the southern tip of the Queen Charlotte Islands.

This CCG program provides communications and traffic services for both the marine community (commercial shipping and fishing industries, recreational boaters), and for the benefit of the public at large.

Through a network of stations and towers along major shipping routes and waterways, MCTS:

  • provides continuous monitoring of international distress and calling frequencies to detect distress situations and ensure speedy resolution of search and rescue incidents, including the operation of a network of VHF direction finding equipment to improve search and rescue response time and reduce associated costs;
  • screens vessels to prevent the entry of unsafe vessels into Canadian waters;
  • regulates vessel traffic movements to reduce marine risks; and,
  • provides public correspondence services to facilitate ship-to-shore communications.

MCTS stations are accessible via a variety of modes of transportation, including good public roads. As with Marine Navigation Services, it is the towers, with their complex technical equipment (e.g., radio beacon repeaters, differential global positioning systems), and which are often well off the beaten path, that present the operational challenge. Not only do they have to be serviced regularly, when a piece of equipment on a tower fails, the need to have it restored to service quickly puts a premium on the ability to get a technical crew to the tower as quickly as possible. Even if there were good roads to the tower, the difference between sending a crew overland from their base versus flying them in by helicopter may be several days, during which the technicians would be unavailable for other work.


Utilizes helicopters for support to CCG Icebreakers during ice breaking activities in the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence seaway, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence and its surrounding waterways.

A typical aerial view from a CCG helicopter while conducting an ice patrol in support of Maritime Region Icebreaking Program.

Most often ship based but is also used as a shore based ice reconnaissance tool.

CCG's icebreaking program is dedicated to ensuring that marine traffic moves safely through or around ice covered waters and to preventing flooding in low-lying areas adjacent to major rivers. Icebreaking supports economic activities by assisting commercial vessels to travel efficiently and safely through or around ice covered waters, and preventing the economic losses that arise from floods. Even more importantly, it is a vital safeguard against the loss of life that may occur during ice damage to vessels or severe flooding.

Helicopters, providing close tactical ice reconnaissance for vessel masters directly from their icebreakers, play an important role in the flood control program, allowing the vessel's master to have up-to-date information on ice conditions within 5 kilometers of the vessel in all directions.

Helicopter support is also an indispensable part of efficient and effective icebreaking per se. It not only saves the CCG significant amounts of money while operating both its summer (arctic) and winter (Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River, Gulf of St. Lawrence, north-eastern Newfoundland coast) programs, it allows maritime trade and commerce worth billions of dollars to be carried out.

As well as supporting tactical ice reconnaissance, icebreaker-based helicopters:

  • support the rotation of non-CCG specialist personnel (ice service specialists, nurses, pilots) who work on the ships and who work to different schedules than the ship's regular crew (the impractical alternative would be to steam back to port so that personnel could be changed);
  • conduct "medivacs" to the nearest health-care facility or, more likely, airport for CCG personnel who fall seriously ill or are injured on the job;
  • conduct "medivacs" for people who fall ill or are seriously injured in remote northern communities. Often, a CCG helicopter is the only rapid transit vehicle for hundreds of miles, and the only practical means of getting someone who needs aid to health care facilities in time for the facilities to do the person any good;
  • ferry technical crews to the navigational aids that are dotted throughout the Arctic so that they can be seasonally activated and deactivated and/or serviced; and,
  • provide the only wide-ranging, rapid-response search and rescue capability in the Arctic and other remote areas.

During the winter icebreaking program, helicopters, operating from shore-based facilities or the decks of the ships themselves help ensure that most Canadian ports are open for business year-round. Helicopters constitute a critical platform for gathering and analysis of the ice reconnaissance data that provide timely and accurate ice information to the shipping industry in Canada. Helicopter reconnaissance information is used to update the ice charts and assist in ice routing to commercial ships. In doing so, it reduces demand for direct icebreaker support, saving money and reducing shipping delays.

Helicopters are the only platform that can effectively support tactical ice reconnaissance for icebreakers that are actively conducting icebreaking operations. Taking off from the icebreaker's deck, they provide the vessel's master with the up-to-date information needed on ice conditions in the immediate vicinity, and for up to 100 miles ahead, of both the ship and the commercial vessel or convoy that she may be escorting. Neither satellite data, nor data from fixed winged aircraft can do this. For safe and effective ice operations, the icebreaker's master needs a helicopter survey that provides accurate ice information. Without such information, the ability to make sound decisions concerning how to deploy the multi-million dollar resource at the master's command is compromised, putting the icebreaker, its crew and, in particular, the ships it is escorting at risk.

Helicopters flying from icebreakers also support economic use of these ships. When unscheduled requests for ice escort services are received from individual vessels, or a port or fishing village requests that the icebreaker returns to conduct additional harbour breakout operations, the faster and much less expensive helicopter can be dispatched to determine if it is really necessary for the icebreaker to steam to the request.

Helicopters flying from CCG icebreakers support other DFO programs. For example, in the summer, they ferry crews and instrumentation to hydrographic stations throughout the Arctic. In the late winter and spring, they support Conservation and Protection activities such as the seal census and the management of the seal hunt.

Environmental Response

Utilizes helicopters to transport personnel and equipment to remote or inaccessible areas during disasters or emergencies.

Newfoundland Offshore Burn Experiment (NOBE): A Bell 212 providing aerial support for the experiment off the south coast of Newfoundland.

The CCG enforces Canada's marine pollution regulations in accordance with such legislation as the Canada Shipping Act, the Arctic Waters Prevention Act, and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

Aviation services, both via fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, play an essential role in patrolling high risk/sensitive areas for marine pollution and in detecting spills.

Helicopters can be particularly valuable in Environmental Response, when a spill has occurred due to vessel grounding or sinking and time is of the essence in identifying the offender, the extent of the spill, and in deploying control and clean up equipment to contain or mitigate damage to the environment. Thus, while Environmental Response is not a primary tasking for CCG helicopters, the program benefits from their availability to support its operations, and their capability to go virtually anywhere regardless of terrain with personnel, supplies, and equipment. There have been numerous instances when the CCG has demonstrated its ability to respond quickly and effectively to environmental disasters because it has helicopters.

Navigable Waters Protection

Navigable waters protection ensures that any work surrounding a navigable waterway, such as bridges and dams, do not disrupt accessibility. Services provided include:

A Québec City based Bell 212 helicopter transporting crews to a remote site along the St. Lawrence River.

  • reviewing construction projects prior to building to ensure they do not disrupt navigation and are environmentally safe;
  • removing blockages, such as sunken wrecks, that interfere with navigation;
  • advising the Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS) of any obstructions so marine charts can be updated;and,
  • monitoring aquaculture operations for compliance.

Search and Rescue

Search and Rescue comprises the search for, and the provision of aid to, persons, ships or other craft which are, or are feared to be, in distress or imminent danger.

CCG helicopters provide aerial support during specific SAR exercises.

The CCG is responsible for providing maritime resources in support of SAR in areas of federal responsibility. The CCG's helicopters are "vessels of opportunity" for marine Search and Rescue. While they are not primary marine SAR platforms, they can be dispatched for SAR duties if they are available and in the vicinity of an incident.

SAR, a responsive activity where time and mobility are critical, cannot be easily planned or predicted. While incident records can provide insight into the areas where Search and Rescue services are most likely to be needed, no one can predict precisely when or where a response will be required. The ability to travel long distances in any direction at high speeds are capabilities that make the helicopter an excellent vessel of opportunity for many SAR situations.

Services to Other Departments Programs


Various science branches throughout DFO utilize helicopters to support various on going research projects.

A BO-105 helicopter in support of scientific research.

Conservation and Protection

Fisheries officers are regular users of the CCG helicopter fleet. The helicopters are used to patrol designated areas on each coast. The most recent example of this work is the Burnt Church lobster fishery dispute.

A BO-105 helicopter provides surveillance support to Conservation and Protection in the Pacific Region.

Several reports have attested to the support CCG helicopters provide to both the Fisheries Management and Science programs of DFO. As recently as 1998, the Report on User Requirements for Aviation Services in DFO concluded that the operational needs for helicopter services for conservation and protection activities exceeded the funds available. In other words, the primary driver of the use of helicopters was funding availability, not the lack of an operational requirement. As well, it has been determined that helicopters, with their ability to survey large areas far more rapidly than ships, can achieve the same results from some science activities more economically and in less time. On one particular tasking, a CCG helicopter with fixed floats working with Environment Canada made 76 water landings in a single day to obtain samples that would otherwise have taken weeks to collect. In another, a CCG helicopter was used for light sampling in the St. Lawrence estuary and completed in only 37.3 hours, a mission that would have required at least two weeks of ship time.

In addition to supporting other departmental programs, the CCG's fleet has supported the programs of other governments. In the summer of 1999, a helicopter/icebreaker combination (the Louis St. Laurent and two helicopters) were chartered on a full cost-recovery basis to the Swedish Polar Research Directorate to support its Tundra Northwest Project.