Field Aviation's development of the Bombardier Dash 8 into a Maritime Surveillance Aircraft started in the early 1990s - when Field Aviation and the Australian operator Surveillance Australia teamed up in preparation for an upcoming tender for the Australian government's civil maritime surveillance operation - COASTWATCH.
This tender was fairly unusual for its time in being entirely task focused. The deciding factor for aircraft that were compliant with the minimum requirements therefore became system efficiency; i.e., the lowest overall cost per square nautical mile to carry out the long-range surveillance task.
This teaming - which combined the Australian company's surveillance aircraft experience with Field Aviation's special mission aircraft modification capabilities and emphasized mission efficiency - was instrumental in establishing the Field Aviation modified Dash 8 MSA as the world's most successful maritime surveillance aircraft in this class, and to winning the first COASTWATCH contract in the fall of 1994.
The first version of this MSA was based on the Dash 8 Series 200 aircraft equipped with a Raytheon SeaVue maritime search radar, providing a 360° field of view. In a single mission, this aircraft can transit 200 Nm, descend to low level and cover an area of up to 100,000 Square Nautical miles when searching for a small target in rough seas. A dual sensor Wescam EO pod, installed under the aircraft's nose section for uninterrupted 360° field of view, provided day and night capability for closer in detection, identification, examination and documentation.
3 Dash 8 MSAs were delivered by Field Aviation in the first half of 2006, and operations commenced - on schedule - shortly thereafter.
Australia has a 38,000 km coastline and an exclusive economic zone of 16 million square kilometres, and faces an increasing level of incursions. When the Australian government decided to increase the COASTWATCH resources in 1999, the choice was clear on the Dash 8 MSA. Two additional Series 200 aircraft were ordered and delivered by Field Aviation at the end of year 2000. For the rest of the contract term, these 5 MSAs delivered an impressive 1,700 surveillance missions per year of 5 - 6 hours' average duration.
In 2004, the Australian government started the process of renewing the surveillance operations ahead of the existing contract coming to term, and issued a new tender for a 20-year contract to commence at the end of 2008. Interestingly, based on the experience over the last 10+ years, the government concluded that the long-range electronic surveillance provided via the Dash 8 MSAs was the most effective use of resources, and the new tender made away with the smaller aircraft that had provided inshore and shoreline surveillance.
Both Surveillance Australia and Field Aviation approached the new tender with a "clean sheet" philosophy, conducting a comprehensive evaluation of all surveillance system elements, including aircraft types and features, sensors, and sensor information systems. Not surprisingly, the internal process confirmed the Dash 8 MSA as the optimum aircraft platform, and at the end of the evaluation of all proposals, Surveillance Australia was awarded the 20-year contract dubbed "Project Sentinel."
Project Sentinel entails a fleet of 10 Dash 8 MSAs, of which 5 are the original Series 200 COASTWATCH aircraft, and 5 are additional aircraft, 1 Series 200 and 4 of the larger Series 300 aircraft. During the modification program, the Series 300 aircraft were equipped with additional fuel tanks in the fuselage, providing an additional 4,000 lbs. fuel capacity in addition to the standard long-range tanks.
Field Aviation modified all the additional aircraft for the Sentinel program as well as providing upgrade kits to bring the existing aircraft up to the newer configuration. The Sentinel Dash 8 MSAs are equipped with the latest versions of Raytheon's SeaVue radar, L-3 Wescam's MX-15 EO system and a new Surveillance Information System based on Galileo Avionica's "ATOS."
These aircraft are providing services for the Australian Border Protection program.