Construction delays force DND to scramble for Chinook shelter

Internal documents showed mounting concern last year over delays

OTTAWA – National Defence was left scrambling last summer to find shelter for its long-awaited CH-147F Chinook helicopters after construction of a new hangar and flight line at the garrison in Petawawa, Ont., slipped far behind schedule.

Internal documents showed mounting concern last year as delays collided with the arrival schedule of the battlefield transports, which had been on order since 2006.

The multi-purpose hangar, runway and refuelling facility were built on land that was once used as a firing range, and as a result was littered with unexploded munitions that had be cleared.

Clearing of the land started in 2010, but the contractor, EllisDon, was forced to concede last spring that the building wouldn’t be ready when the first aircraft started arriving in July.

A brief note prepared by the deputy defence minister last October, and obtained by The Canadian Press, shows that the air force was forced to move its initial flight training to another part of the base. The first helicopter had to be delivered to Ottawa instead of Petawawa.

But as a new helicopter arrived each month, it soon became clear the situation was untenable, especially with the onset of winter.

The new schedule called for a phased-in move into the hangar and training centre this month.

“Mitigation measures have been taken to maximize the probability of meeting this latest deadline,” said the briefing note, dated Oct. 9, 2013.

The initial project budget was pegged at $134.8 million.

Liberal defence critic Joyce Murray was mystified at the delay, especially with three years of preparation and almost eight years of lead time following the original announcement of the new helicopters.

Clearing land and constructing a building is a pretty straightforward proposition, she said.

“Why did it take three delays in less than a year for the government to increase oversight of this project?” Murray asked.

“This is yet another example of government incompetence and mismanagement on defence, which has meant that our men and women in uniform are not being given the equipment, training, or facilities they need to do their jobs.”

The 15 Chinooks are years behind schedule and the subject of criticism in a 2010 report by the auditor general, who accused the air force of not following the rules when pitching the sole-source deal to cabinet.

The report found National Defence didn’t tell decision-makers about the extensive changes it wanted to see on the choppers, which were intended to carry 30 soldiers and heavy cargo around the battlefield.

The helicopters were initially supposed to touch down in 2008, but were pushed back to 2010 and then finally 2013.