High-tech aircraft mothballed

Environment Canada has mothballed some of the world’s most advanced equipment for dealing with oil spills, tracking submarines and monitoring Arctic sea ice.

OTTAWA — Environment Canada has mothballed some of the world’s most advanced equipment for dealing with oil spills, tracking submarines and monitoring Arctic sea ice.

Even as the auditor general’s office chides the government for taking an antiquated, piecemeal approach to dealing with oil spills, officials have let their state-of-the-art technology languish in a hangar on the outskirts of Ottawa, former staffers say.

At issue are two airplanes equipped with lasers, radar technology and other remote-sensing tools that have been developed by Canadian researchers over three decades.

They haven’t flown for a year, and in September last year Environment Canada quietly shut down the program that oversaw the planes.

“Environment Canada did an analysis and determined that it was more cost effective for us to lease the aircraft we need in order to do this kind of work rather than to own and manage our own planes,” a spokesman for the department said in an email response to questions.

“There are other commercially available planes and equipment.”

The mothballed planes are old, but it’s not the planes themselves that are important for the government’s monitoring of the environment, former staffers say. Rather, it’s the equipment inside the planes.

“It’s not the planes. It’s the instruments that are in them,” said Merv Fingas, who ran the program until he retired in 2006.

The aircraft serve as a platform for technology that has monitored oil, pollution, bug infestations, birds, ice and submarines, and served to support Canada’s space and satellite programs.

One of the planes, a Convair 580, is equipped with radar that could map and measure even the smallest changes in the earth’s geography ­— helpful in mapping flood plains, predicting crop growth, and detailing rugged and remote areas, including the Arctic.

The other plane, a DC3, has a unique capacity to detect and confirm oil spills in any conditions ­— in the dark, in the ice, on the shore, on land and on the ocean.

“It’s just endless what these things can do,” said Bryan Healey, the former head pilot for both planes. “You’ve got the best equipment in the world. And yet it sits in a hangar in Ottawa.”