Sunday, February 01, 2009

Afstan: Air Wing's helicopters on operations

Further to Damian's post, from Archie McLean in the Edmonton Journal:
New air wing offers troops safer passage
Edmonton-based chopper squadron gets soldiers off dangerous roads, increases surveillance

About a month ago, one of Canada's forward operating bases in Afghanistan badly needed an engineer to work on some damaged equipment.

It was a quick job, but to get an engineer there and back would have meant a four-day round trip over difficult terrain with the ever-present threat of roadside bombs and enemy ambushes. Enter the Griffon helicopter, which ferried the engineer there and back.

"We managed to get them there one afternoon and pick them up the next morning," said Col. Christopher Coates, the commander of Canada's new air wing in Afghanistan. "And we did it with significantly less risk than driving on the roads." Canadian aircraft -- helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles -- have been flying for more than a month now over Afghanistan and military leaders say they are keeping Canadians troops safe by getting them off dangerous roads and conducting important surveillance and reconnaissance.

The new wing is made up mainly from the Edmonton-based 408 tactical helicopter squadron.

Improving air support in Afghanistan was a key recommendation of last year's report to Parliament by former MP John Manley.

The report set Feb. 1 as the deadline to have more choppers in the air.

"No equipment can perfectly protect Canadian soldiers against improvised explosive devices. But helicopters can save lives by reducing reliance on transporting troops by road, and aerial surveillance can more effectively track insurgent movements," the report said.

In response, Canada bought six CH-147 Chinook helicopters from the United States for roughly $300 million and brought in eight Griffon helicopters from Canada.

Canadian soldiers had to scrub the American flags off the Chinooks and replace them with Canadian markings once they were handed over.

Canada also purchased up to four Heron unmanned aerial drones, which conduct surveillance and intelligence gathering. The arrival of the helicopters was welcome news for NATO troops here.

Canada hasn't owned Chinooks since the early 1990s, when the Mulroney government sold them to the Dutch, who are still using the same helicopters in Afghanistan. Chinooks are medium-lift helicopters, big workhorses that can carry up to 12,270 kilograms of cargo or 33 troops and their equipment.

"Even in our training, we've been slinging loads onboard, we've been slinging loads into various locations," Col. Coates said, adding that they moved 200 people last week alone. "And that's just a start." Eventually, Canada will get 16 new Chinooks. Although the announcement was made two years ago, delays have meant they likely won't be operational until 2012 or 2013.

The Griffons are smaller helicopters whose primary role will be to escort the Chinook, which is a much larger target for ground fire. They can also conduct armed reconnaissance and surveillance when needed.

On a training mission Friday, a pair of Griffons escorted a Chinook into the Registan Desert south of Kandahar city. The Griffons rose quickly into the air, flying over the barbed wire fence that marks the edge of the Kandahar Airfield.

"The aircraft is outside the wire," co-pilot Capt. Michael Girard said into his headset.

The Griffons flew parallel to each other, low to the ground over the khaki-coloured earth and mud-walled villages. The massive Chinook flew ahead between its escorts, looking like a school bus with rotors.

Sitting on the edge of the aircraft, the side gunners kept close watch on the grape-drying huts, which could make good cover for someone trying to take shots at the aircraft. The villagers below waved at the gunners, who returned the gesture. At least two people vainly hurled rocks at the helicopter as it sped past.

The pilots call the desert landings "dustball landings," for the cloud of sand they throw into the air. Back home in Edmonton, they do "snowball landings." Though the resurgent Taliban control large swaths of ground in southern Afghanistan, NATO troops rule the air. The main danger is from somebody on the ground firing an assault rifle. Just two weeks ago, an American soldier died in Northeast Afghanistan after a Chinook was forced to make an emergency landing near the Pakistan border. Villagers told Reuters news service that the helicopter was billowing smoke and looked like it was hit by ground fire...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

excellent news

8:48 a.m., February 02, 2009  

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