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Forces to the rescue after plane breakdown strands Trudeau in India

PM wants to be at the Liberal caucus retreat that starts Wednesday in London, Ont
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plane is seen on the tarmac after being grounded due to a technical issue following the G20 Summit in New Delhi, India on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The Canadian Armed Forces has sent a plane to pick up Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is stranded in India after the plane he took to the G20 leaders’ summit was grounded due to technical issues.

The Prime Minister’s Office said the Canadian delegation is working to leave New Delhi by Tuesday afternoon, local time, at the earliest. Press secretary Mohammad Hussain said the situation remains fluid.

A CC-150 Polaris plane left CFB Trenton, Ont., on Sunday evening. It and another plane, a CC-144 Challenger, stopped in London before the Polaris flew on to New Dehli.

Senior government sources said a technician was headed to India with the part needed to fix the mechanical issue on the original plane, and that the replacement plane will take the delegation home if the technician is not able to fix the issue.

The sources were granted anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.

“The problem involves a component that will have to be replaced,” said Daniel Le Bouthillier, head of media relations for the Department of National Defence.

He said the issue was discovered during a pre-flight check.

“The discovery of this issue is evidence that these protocols are effective,” he said.

Trudeau was slated to leave New Dehli on Sunday. The Canadian delegation was at the airport waiting to board the plane when they were told about the issue. Trudeau and his son Xavier, who accompanied him, had not yet arrived at the airport.

As planes carrying delegations from South Korea and Russia took to the skies, the Canadian delegation was told to return to the hotel. Trudeau has remained there, holding private meetings.

The PMO has also not said whether Trudeau will be able to make it to the three-day Liberal caucus retreat scheduled to start Tuesday in London, Ont., although they said he wants to attend.

The fleet of CC-150 Polaris planes, which is the Royal Canadian Air Force designation for the Airbus planes that include those used to transport the prime minister, governor general and other high-ranking officials, has been in use since the early 1990s.

There is no Wi-Fi on the VIP plane, and power cords run along the floors to allow passengers to charge phones and other technology that didn’t exist when the plane was built. There is a small cabin in the front for the prime minister or governor general, while the rest of the Polaris is configured more like a typical commercial plane.

It is not fuel efficient and has a very limited range, requiring most overseas trips to have multiple stops for refuelling.

With no beds or showers for the main cabin, protocol officers, journalists and security officials tend to sleep on the floor of the plane or across its seats, using their own blankets, camping pads and sleeping bags during overnight flights.

The plane has faced a string of mechanical problems, including a flap issue in October 2016 that required the aircraft to return to Ottawa half an hour after taking off, delaying a visit to Belgium to sign the Canada-Europe free trade deal.

In 2018, a sensor was damaged as Trudeau headed for his previous visit to India, meaning a refuelling stop in Rome lasted almost three hours instead of the usual 90 minutes.

In 2019, the plane sustained “significant” structural damage at its home at CFB Trenton when it rolled into the wall of a hangar.

A month later, as the original plane was under repair, Trudeau used a backup plane to reach a NATO summit in London. Air-force officials then discovered an engine problem, leading them to use a third CC-150 Polaris plane for Trudeau’s return.

At the time that plane was in Italy with former governor general Julie Payette, who was making a separate trip.

In July, then-defence minister Anita Anand announced the federal government had purchased nine new Airbus planes to replace the aging CC-150 Polaris fleet, which is nearing the end of its service life.

Designated as the CC-330 Husky, the fleet of new and used aircraft will include one for transporting high-level officials such as the prime minister. One of the aircraft was delivered to Ottawa last month, but is not yet ready to use.

When Trudeau took off from Ottawa on Sept. 3 to tour the Indo-Pacific region, with stops in Jakarta and Singapore before arriving in New Delhi, the new plane was on the tarmac at the Ottawa International Airport.

Le Bouthillier said the aircrew will need training along with more flight tests before that plane can be used.

While the heads of some European governments have been spotted flying commercial, both Liberal and Conservative prime ministers have generally avoided doing so, including on personal vacations.

The prime minister travels internationally with a security team that includes medical experts armed with supplies for emergencies.

In 2017, the RCMP office in charge of the prime minister’s security told the federal ethics commissioner that prime ministers generally travel on Canadian government-owned aircraft for security reasons, and occasionally the aircraft of a host government, such as in places where Canadian military aircraft are too large to land.

The RCMP also told the commissioner that the prime minister technically has final say over travel arrangements, their recommendations are generally followed and that the use of non-government aircraft is very rare.

The VIP plane — known officially as Can Force One — has had a contentious history over its amenities.

In 1992, then-Liberal Opposition leader Jean Chrétien objected to the cost of buying and turning the Airbus into a flying office for the prime minister, and dubbed it the “flying Taj Mahal.” He particularly objected to installing a private compartment with a dining room, entertainment area, fold-out beds and a shower.

Chretien never flew on the plane as prime minister. Attempts to sell it were unsuccessful and eventually the interior was downgraded to a smaller, less lavish VIP cabin that is still in use today. It has a bed and small sitting room.

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