‘Scope’ and cost of software fix to naval helicopters expected in spring 2022


Published December 11, 2021 at 12:43 pm

HALIFAX — The scope and cost of changes needed to remedy a software issue that was a cause of a naval helicopter crash off Greece resulting in six deaths won’t be known until next spring.

A Defence Department spokesman said in a recent email that work is underway, but neither the price tag to taxpayers nor timelines for the remedy will be finalized until a first phase of study is completed by Sikorsky, the manufacturers of the Cyclone helicopter.

Two reviews by the Canadian Armed Forces have found the autopilot took control of the CH-148 Cyclone helicopter, plunging it into the Ionian Sea as the pilot was turning to return to HMCS Fredericton on April 29, 2020.

Master Cpl. Matthew Cousins, Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough, Capt. Kevin Hagen, Capt. Brenden MacDonald, Capt. Maxime Miron-Morin and Sub-Lt. Matthew Pyke died in the crash — the largest single-day loss of life for Canada’s military since its mission in Afghanistan.

Some experts in automated systems told The Canadian Press in July the fix to the software issue was urgent and expressed concerns a similar incident could produce further fatalities.

Since then, there have been further problems with the helicopters. The military has recently found cracks in the tail of most choppers in the fleet, resulting in a series of repairs now underway to return 19 damaged aircraft to regular flying duties.

The Flight Safety Investigation Report completed seven months ago called for a remedy to the flight control system to prevent further overrides of pilot control.

Andrew McKelvey, a spokesman for the Defence Department, wrote in an email to The Canadian Press that “work will be completed in two phases.”

“The first phase is the determination of the scope of the changes required to address the recommendations made in the report. This first phase is estimated to be completed in Spring 2022,” he wrote. 

He said the timeline for the second phase will depend on the scope of the changes determined in the first phase.

In July, three experts on the interaction between automation and pilots told The Canadian Press that the department needed to move swiftly towards a solution that went beyond the Royal Canadian Air Force changing training regimes and limiting some manoeuvres.

Mary (Missy) Cummings, a former U.S. navy pilot and director of the humans and autonomy lab at Duke University, has said the pilot’s inability to regain control from automated software is “a very serious problem,” which needed to “be addressed forthwith.”

According to the flight safety report’s findings, the autopilot was left on as the pilot executed a sharp turn, and as a result the software built up commands, preventing the pilot from resuming manual control at the end of his turn. The first of two military reports  — the Board of Inquiry report — referred to this accumulation of calculations from the automated software as “attitude command bias.”

Sikorsky spokesman John Dorrian said in an email Friday the company is working with the air force to “assess the enhancements to the CH-148 flight control system.” 

“This work includes design reviews, adding the enhancements to the flight control software, extensive simulation testing in a lab environment, and rigorous on-going assessments by Cyclone pilots. This … process may lead to other observations, suggestions and additional changes before the final path forward is approved,” he wrote.

Greg Jamieson, a professor of industrial engineering at the University of Toronto who studies human-automation interactions, said in a Friday email that a period of a year to identify the scope of changes for a major engineering change to a relatively new flight control system “is reasonable.”

“However, if that scope of changes is determined to be broad, it could further call into question the process of certifying the aircraft when the bias accumulation behaviour was known to Sikorsky and apparently deemed not to present a safety risk,” he wrote. 

Michael Byers, a professor and Canada research chair in global politics at the University of British Columbia, said in an email Friday he remains concerned “the Canadian Armed Forces are putting the lives of aircrew at risk by sending them up in helicopters that have known safety issues.”

“Instructing aircrew to not do certain things, which is what they mean by ‘restrictions’ and ‘limitations,’ is flat-out unacceptable because it increases the chances of a combination of human and equipment failure,” he wrote.

“The Cyclones should be grounded until Sikorsky comes up with a definitive fix to the software issue.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 11, 2021. 

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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