The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) has been operating the AW101/CH-149 Cormorant since 2001 undertaking thousands of lifesaving search and rescue (SAR) missions in the most extreme and harsh environmental conditions, from coast-to-coast.

The Cormorant Mid-Life Upgrade (CMLU) Project is included in Canada’s Strong, Secure and Engaged (SSE) Defence Policy as a key defence procurement program, and is currently in the “Definition Phase”.

The CMLU Project will: Extend the life of the Cormorant helicopter until 2040 and beyond; Return the Cormorant fleet to Canadian Forces Base Trenton as the primary SAR helicopter; Provide enhanced aircraft flight management, communication and navigation systems, complying with latest regulations; Address existing and projected obsolescence while incorporating maintainability and reliability enhancements; Introduce modern SAR mission sensors; Ensure there is no disruption to Cormorant Rotary-Wing SAR capability during the Project; Deliver Industrial Technological Benefits to Canadian companies.

The CMLU solution will leverage the existing design and development work undertaken by Leonardo on the latest generation of the AW101 – the Norwegian All-Weather Search and Rescue Helicopter (NAWSARH) – which is currently being delivered to Norway.

Dominic Howe, Head of International Campaigns – America and Canada at Leonardo Helicopters, commented: “From the outset we have proposed a low risk upgrade solution utilizing an existing design which will provide the RCAF with much greater SAR capability and provide greater peace of mind to all Canadians across Canada.”

The CMLU Project includes augmentation of the fleet with a minimum of two additional helicopters enabling the return of the Cormorant helicopter to the Trenton Main Operating Base which covers the Great Lakes region.

The CMLU Project will include state-of-the-art avionics, a new glass cockpit, the addition of the latest SAR sensors including a surveillance radar, Electro Optical Infra-Red device, more powerful digitally-controlled engines, wireless in-cabin communications, LED lighting, rescue hoist upgrades, synthetic training solutions from CAE which include: a training centre, Full Mission Simulator and Rear Crew Trainer, among others.

“This isn’t a development program – it’s using Commercial Off-The-Shelf technology,” said Howe. He added further: “This is utilizing the design and development undertaken for the NAWSARH project which will provide Canada with a low risk, and value for money solution; it also provides long-term benefits with a drive towards a standardized common configuration across multiple AW101 operators.”

Leonardo and its Team Cormorant partners: IMP Aerospace, CAE, GE Canada and Collins Aerospace will provide significant Industrial Technological Benefits with a strong Value Proposition and the provision of long-term Canadian employment – with Leonardo transferring knowledge and technology enabling the vast majority of the CMLU work to be performed in Canada by Canadians.

Howe commented: “The significant capability the CMLU Project will deliver, through the introduction of the surveillance radar, EO/IR device, the Mobile Phone Detection and Localization System and other updated systems, will ensure less search and more rescue.”


The Cormorant Mid-Life Upgrade will transition Canada’s AW101/CH149 “Cormorant” search and rescue (SAR) helicopter fleet to the latest standard currently being delivered for SAR in Norway and arguably the best search and rescue helicopter in the world. The proposed upgrades and enhancements include:

  1. Avionics – The avionics upgrade to the Cormorant will improve mission effectiveness through the reduction in crew workload and most importantly, it will increase safety. This is made possible with state-of-the-art avionics systems and radars which enable the crews to focus on the rescue at hand.
  2. “Glass” Cockpit – The Cormorant will be updated with five 10 x 8 inch Multi-Function Display Units which will show the necessary information on the operation of the aircraft under Visual Flight Rules and Instrument Flight rules within civil and military airspace.
  3. Synthetic Vision – The cockpit will be equipped with Synthetic Vision Systems which use existing navigation sensors and precise navigation databases.
  4. Avoidance Systems – A Helicopter Terrain Avoidance System (HTAS) will provide ground proximity warnings and alerts to obstacles or obstructions enhancing the ‘eyes’ of the Cormorant when in SAR mode. These technologies are further complimented by the Traffic Collision and Avoidance System (TCAS) and Automatic Identification System (AIS).
  5. Sensors, Radar and SAR systems – The proposed CMLU upgrade also consists of an advanced EO/IR device and high intensity search light which makes locating people in challenging conditions that much easier. Utilizing the new Aircraft Management System, the search light can be automatically coupled to the EO/IR.

Crew situational awareness is enhanced by an external camera system that provides the crew with a bird’s eye view of the aircraft, in addition to both an under belly and hoist view – extremely valuable when operating in close confines such as forests and cliff sides.

Sensors such as the Mobile Phone Detection and Localization system and Leonardo Osprey 30 surveillance radar will deliver an increased SAR capability able to locate and rescue quicker in more hostile environments.

ARCSAR (Arctic and North Atlantic Security and Emergency Preparedness Network)

Leonardo is the sole industrial participant in ARCSAR – the Arctic and North Atlantic Security and Emergency Preparedness Network, a five-year EU programme funded through the Horizon 2020, which aims to promote collaboration in security, emergency-response activities and sustainable technology development in the Arctic region. The ARCSAR project involves 13 countries and is led by the Joint Rescue and Coordination Center of Northern Norway.

As part of ARCSAR, Leonardo contributes with its unique heritage, expertise and Innovation in areas including SAR helicopters such as those already used by Canada, Denmark, Norway and the United Kingdom, radar systems, maritime patrol systems, communications, satellite imagery and analysis, and integrated solutions that can control and mitigate the effects of climate change. Leonardo’s approach to climate change is in line with Sustainable Development Goal 13 of the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda.