Built on innovation - air reserve airfield engineers

Major Mike Minnich, Bravo Defence, July 2003

Nearly a decade ago, some outside-the-box thinking achieved a significant enhancement to Air Command’s airfield-engineering capabilities by turning to the Air Reserve.

Scene: a sweltering airfield in an unnamed country in the Arab-Persian Gulf region, late summer 2002. At “Camp Mirage,” several hundred Canadian Forces personnel are actively engaged in Operation Apollo - Canada’s key overseas contribution to the war on terrorism - by supporting the flight operations of Aurora patrol aircraft and Hercules tactical transports.

As with any camp in an operational theatre, the deployed unit needs to be as self-sustaining as possible when it comes to construction, maintenance, and associated engineering and environmental requirements. But the bulk of skilled specialists handling the electrical, plumbing, air conditioning, water/sewage and general construction duties for the six-month rotation are not Regular Force members. They’re Air Reservists from four airfield engineering flights (AEF) established in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and British Columbia less than a decade ago.

Since then, these highly motivated individuals - many with relevant civilian employment expertise - have participated in numerous overseas or remote-area operational assignments that cross the spectrum of duties encompassed in the term “airfield engineering.”

The Air Reserve is a relatively small organization of about 2,300 men and women. The story of the creation of this valuable capability is one of innovative thinking - born from a need to better support the full-time Air Force, and a desire to establish new, mutually beneficial partnerships with local government and other organizations.

“Coming out of the Gulf War and other operational experiences in the early 90s, the Air Force really needed additional deployable airfield-engineering capabilities,” says Lieutenant-Colonel Ray Wolowidnyk, A4 Coordinator at 1 Canadian Air Division in Winnipeg and original project team leader for the initiative.

“Unfortunately, at about this same time, significant budget reductions and personnel downsizing were required of the Air Force, and of the CF in general. It became obvious the only way this capability could be enhanced would be through the Air Reserve - and only with a really innovative, cost-effective approach.”

In January 1994, after concept approval, research began into where these small and specialized units should be and how to provide the physical support they’d need at the lowest possible cost. The overall unit (authorized strength of 59 Reservists and two Regular Force personnel) would be known as 14 Airfield Engineering Squadron (AES).

In conjunction with Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC), the concept was realized. National Defence would contract with a local “partner,” a firm, institution or local government to provide the physical facility, utilities, and non-military supplies needed by a reserve airfield engineering flight -and DND/CF would pay a fee.

Initially, contracts were for three years, and the request for proposal (RFP) reflected the “best value” concept. In another innovative feature, the partner was required to establish a community advisory board to promote the AEF actively to local businesses, media, and the community at large.

After considering local economic impact, recruitment demographics, and quality of RFP responses, the locations for the squadron headquarters became:

·        143 AEF at Bridgewater and surrounding Lunenburg County, 

·         Pictou, Nova Scotia for 144 AEF,

·         91 AEF at Gander, Newfoundland,

·         Later, 192 AEF at Abbotsford, British Columbia was established under command of the Regular Force’s 4 AES at Cold Lake, Alberta.

After bids assessments, site visits, and cost-benefit analyses, contracts were awarded, says LCol Wolowidnyk. “The process was exceptionally open and fair, and bidders could see everyone was treated equally.”

Then when initial contracts expired, reassessments were done and changes made. Currently 14 AES HQ and 143 AEF have a joint partnership contract with the Municipality of Lunenburg, and 192 AEF has a partnership contract with the nearby Abbotsford Career Technical Centre. However 144 AEF has converted to a  “non-profit memorandum of understanding” with the Town of Pictou, and 91 AEF has a similar arrangement with the Town of Gander.

Today, all four Air Reserve airfield engineering flights are providing excellent value-for-dollar to the CF, he says. They are well integrated into local communities, and regularly participate in public events and non-profit construction projects, which also provide valuable training.

“It just goes to show what innovative thinking and a philosophy of inclusive partnership can do.”

Challenges remain. All four flights are not full strength because of personnel transfers to the Regular Force and competition from civilian industry for skilled tradespersons. Nevertheless, the key raison d’être for the units has been validated many times over.

Reserve airfield engineers have voluntarily participated in such operational deployments as the Arctic (CFS Alert), the Caribbean (Haiti), the Golan Heights (Syria) and “points east” (Op Apollo).

In 1997, the concept earned a Deputy Minister/Chief of the Defence Staff renewal award.

“This was one of my most satisfying projects,” LCol Wolowidnyk says. “We were able to stand up the first flight just eight months after the concept was authorized. I think that is virtually unprecedented.”
“It just goes to show what innovative thinking and a philosophy of inclusive partnership can do.”

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