Canada’s VVIP ‘Can Force One’ Jet Faces Months Of Repairs After Rolling Into A Hangar Wall

The Royal Canadian Air Force recently revealed that its dedicated CC-150 Polaris VVIP aircraft, also referred to as Can Force One, suffered a serious accident while undergoing maintenance nearly two months ago and isn’t scheduled to return to duty until August 2020. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau subsequently had to fly to London for the annual NATO summit on one of the service’s four other, but less specialized, CC-150s.

The mishap occurred on Oct. 19, 2019, but the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) did not confirm it until Dec. 2. The incident remains under investigation, but the service has said that contract maintenance personnel were towing Can Force One into a hangar when it apparently went out of control and rolled into the hangar wall, crushing the nose. The right engine cowling also suffered damage. The accident occurred at Canadian Forces Base Trenton in Ontario, Canada., which is home to the 437 Transport Squadron that operates all five CC-150s

“We do not have sufficient detail about potential costs, or the attribution of those costs, to provide any detail at this time,” RCAF spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Steve Neta said in a statement. “The incident remains under investigation to determine causes and identify preventive measures.”

Can Force One in 2014., Artem Batuzak via Wikimedia

Until the VVIP CC-150 returns to service next year, Prime Minister Trudeau, his advisors, family, and others traveling with him will have to make use of the other CC-150s or one of the RCAF’s smaller CC-144s. The latter aircraft are variants of Bombardier’s Challenger 600 series business jets, which the service uses for light passenger transport duties.

Though the exact cost to the repair Can Force One is not yet known, the fact that teams from Airbus, which built the CC-150s, and General Electric, which is responsible for their engines, have already assessed that it will take some eight months to complete the work points to a likely very expensive bill. The incident only adds another chapter to what has been something of a saga for aircraft since its introduction into service in the 1990s.

A picture showing damage to Can Force One’s right engine cowling following the October 2019 mishap., Canadian Forces

The CC-150s started life as Airbus A310-300 airliners, serving first with Wardair and then with Canadian Airlines, not to be confused with Air Canada. The Canadian government subsequently bought the planes in the early 1990s and converted them into combination passenger and cargo transport aircraft with a new cabin floor and a large side-opening cargo door in the forward fuselage. In 2008, Canada also hired Airbus to further modify two of the CC-150s into the Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) configuration with underwing probe-and-drogue refueling pods, with those planes getting redesignated as CC-150Ts.

A CC-150T refuels a pair of Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornet fighter jets., Canadian Forces

In 1992, the administration of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, a member of the Progressive Conservative Party, had decided to convert the first of the CC-150s, which has the serial number 15001, to a VVIP configuration at the cost of 56 million Canadian dollars. The exact cost to acquire the aircraft from Canadian Airlines in the first place is unclear, but Jean Chrétien, then head of Canada’s Liberal Party and leader of the opposition in Parliament, decried the VVIP modifications as “extravagant” and described the plane as a “flying Taj Mahal.” 

These changes reportedly included a private cabin for the prime minister with foldout beds and a shower, as well as a dining room with a table for eight and an entertainment area. Technically, the aircraft remained capable of being reconfigured back into its transport role, if necessary.

After Chrétien became Prime Minister himself in November 1993, he refused to fly on the plane for the duration of his more than decade-long tenure, using CC-144s and other CC-150s, instead. Can Force One sat, on standby, at Canadian Forces Base Uplands in Ottawa, home of 412 Transport Squadron, which flies CC-144s specially configured for the VVIP role. This unit ferries senior Canadian government officials around and is also on call to transport foreign dignitaries. This includes supporting visits by the Queen of the United Kingdom, who technically remains Queen of Canada, and shuttling around the Governor-General of Canada, who is the Queen’s direct representative in the country.

One of 412 Transportation Squadron’s VIP-configured CC-144 jets., via Wikimedia

Chrétien also tried to sell off the VVIP-configured CC-150. American celebrities Madonna and Kenny Rogers, as well as the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team, were reportedly among the prospective buyers, but the plane ultimately remained with the RCAF. 

By the end of the 1990s, the RCAF had reportedly downgraded the interior of the VVIP aircraft, removing the dining room completely and scaling back the entertainment portion to “little more than a TV with a couple of couches in a loud fabric reminiscent of a casino,” according to one article from The Globe and Mail. “The entire VIP section, paneled in tacky wood veneer, takes up about one-third of the aircraft.”

A picture showing the spartan interior of the executive bedroom on Can Force One., Public Domain

The executive suite for the Prime Minister and their advisors and staff still offers a working area with satellite telephone and computer work stations, but the bulk of the passengers, including members of the press, otherwise ride in airline-style seating in the rear. Various regular upgrades over the years have improved the communications and other systems onboard, as well.

Scaling back the opulent interior was not the end of the controversies surrounding Can Force One, however. In 2011, Canadian media uncovered that then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a member of the Conservative Party, had been pushing the RCAF for at least two years to repaint the plane in a special scheme in place of the standard overall gray paint job found on all the CC-150s at the time. 

Prior to 2013, the RCAF’s VVIP CC-150 carried the same gray scheme as the other four Polaris aicraft, such as this jet, with the serial number 15004., John Davies via Wikimedia

The RCAF and the Canadian Ministry of Defense, including Harper’s own Defense Minister Peter MacKay, reportedly pushed back against the plan, saying a high-visibility civilian-style scheme would limit the ability to use the aircraft in the standard military transport role, if required. Harper ultimately prevailed and Can Force One emerged in its new red, white, and blue scheme, which it carries to this day, in 2013. Repainting the plane reportedly cost approximately 50,000 Canadian dollars.

Beyond all this, the aircraft is simply aging, with the airframe being just over three decades old and the aircraft having spent most of that time in RCAF service. It is becoming increasingly maintenance intensive, in general. In 2016, a problem with Can Force One’s flaps forced it to return to base just 30 minutes after takeoff with Trudeau onboard. The Prime Minister had been headed to Belgium to sign a trade deal.

Two years later, another mechanical issue forced the plane to remain on the ground in Rome, Italy for three hours so maintenance crews could replace an unspecified broken sensor. This was supposed to be a 90-minute refueling stop for Can Force One, which was carrying Trudeau to India for his controversial state visit.

The RCAF has considered plans in the past to replace the entire fleet of CC-150s, which are all of the same general age, between 2026 and 2036. However, under Trudeau’s administration, Canada’s Department of National Defense has also said it working to extend the life of the aircraft by limiting their flight hours. The Canadian government’s separate effort to acquire a new fleet of fighter jets, its own saga, which The War Zone has followed extensively, has reportedly contributed to the continued deferring of the decision on a final CC-150 replacement plan.

Following this latest incident, Lieutenant Colonel Neta, the RCAF spokesperson, said in his statement that the service is confident that it can still meet the demands for VVIP support with Can Force One now out of commission for the next eight months. Whatever happens to the jet in the coming years, this new mishap has certainly added a new wrinkle to the plane’s unique story. 

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Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.