Above & Beyond: Canadian Helicopter Force, Afghanistan

Above & Beyond: Canadian Helicopter Force, Afghanistan

Comrades carry the body of a Canadian soldier during a ramp ceremony. The author attended such ceremonies for 20 soldiers during his six-month deployment. Canadian Forces Combat Camera

This is the sixth ramp ceremony I have attended. This time Canada lost three soldiers. They had completed a mission to defuse another improvised explosive device and were on their way back to base when a massive roadside bomb destroyed their armored personnel carrier.

After the ceremony, I head back to my shelter in the Canadian Air Wing lines at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. I go to bed, close my eyes, and think about the men who died. Two were relatively young; the other was 38, a seasoned soldier and father of four. Eventually I doze off, with nightmares of what my fellow soldiers’ last moments must have been like.

I awake in a cold sweat and bolt upright. Turbine engines whine as a large aircraft a few hundred yards away struggles into a steep departure. A siren sounds and a British-accented voice announces, “Rocket attack, rocket attack, rocket attack.” I check that all my arms and legs are still attached. I must have been awakened by the impact of yet another rocket from the surrounding insurgents.

I lie back down so that all of me is below the concrete barriers that surround the shelter. I reach under my bed, fumble for my flak vest and helmet, and suit up while lying flat. I try to go back to sleep; I have another big day tomorrow.

I command the Chinook Flight of the Canadian Helicopter Force Afghanistan, Canada’s first expeditionary force with helicopters in a combat theater. We previously had Chinook C models, but those were sold to the Dutch. Since 1993, Canada’s army aviation fleet has consisted of only the light utility/reconnaissance Bell 412 Griffon.

Since January 2002, Canada has contributed a significant number of boots on the ground to the war in Afghanistan, but without any helicopter support. We desperately needed armed helicopters, but more importantly, medium- to heavy-lift support to get our men and women off the dangerous Afghanistan roads. The Canadian government bought from the U.S. Army six D-model Chinooks already in service in Afghanistan. In March 2008, a few of us were sent to Alabama so the U.S. Army could train us in flying the Chinook D. By October we were in theater, and in late December we took possession of our Ds, now with the type designation CH-147. We started flying combat missions almost immediately.

The day after the nighttime rocket attack, I had an early morning start with mission briefings, and shortly thereafter we were out the door to move passengers and equipment between Kandahar and various forward operating bases. I was the air mission commander for two Chinooks, escorted by four armed Griffons. The plan was to move 200 Canadian soldiers, who for two days had been conducting operations against the insurgents, from a remote location to their secure base.

After breakfast, we were briefed that another Canadian company had just struck a roadside bomb and lost three soldiers, and had several wounded. The casualties had been extracted, but the company commander had requested Chinooks to pick up the remaining company members and fly them back to their base, lest they detonate more bombs on the drive back.

Arriving at the release point in the desert, several miles south of the landing zone, I was advised that the LZ was taking enemy fire. When the all-clear came, and we were 30 seconds out, the ground forces popped colored smoke. The LZ was clear—to both me and the enemy. We came in fast and I stood the helicopter on its hind legs to brake our speed as quickly as possible. When the aft wheels touched down in a muddy poppy field, Jake, my lead flight engineer, lowered the ramp. Within 30 seconds a bus-load of soldiers ran aboard. Jake raised the ramp, and I snapped us back up.

While my first officer, Jay, was flying, I looked back into the cabin. Tired and dirty soldiers were hunkered down, all with big smiles of relief. There is no certificate or medal that can compare to that moment.

The emergency evacuation done, we returned to Kandahar and took on fuel with the engines running. During the next several hours, we moved a couple of hundred people and tons of equipment in and out of bases.

The biggest lesson for the day was getting a feel for the relatively massive downwash the Chinook dual rotor system produced; with a diameter of 60 feet, each rotor disc pushes a storm of air to the ground. I lost count of the boards, chairs, and tents we blew over that day. My biggest concern was the number of outhouses we knocked over. No one was inside them—I hope.

When a helicopter lands in a sandy environment, the downwash generates a dust cloud that envelops the helicopter like a cocoon and blinds the pilots. In the CH-147D, there are no special instruments to guide the pilot to the ground, other than your own Mark I eyeball. Night landings are even more challenging; night-vision goggles restrict your field of view. Imagine driving at night in thick snow with toilet-paper tubes taped to your eyes. The art comes in finessing your approach path to eliminate sideways drift and keep the descent rate relatively slow but brisk. It was a balancing act, made worse by the weight of a full load of troops—the heavier the aircraft, the denser the dust ball. But whatever the aviator does, before the tires touch the ground, the surroundings will “brown out”—you lose all visual cues. At that point, it’s like watching a toilet overflow; there is nothing to do but stand back, watch it happen, and hope for the best.

Finally, we were back at Kandahar, and we shut down the engines. The rotors slowed to a stop, and I peeled off my helmet, which had not left my head for the better part of the day. Like a contortionist, I moved my arms and legs in all directions, and used all my remaining strength to extract myself and my 50-odd pounds of body armor and survival equipment from the cramped Chinook cockpit. I just wanted to eat supper and go to bed, but I still had to sign in the aircraft and complete mission reports. After that, I would attack the pile of flight commander e-mails and attend a meeting or two, or three. The flight engineers and gunners had yet to put the aircraft to bed and clean weapons.

The next day, I had a new crew and the mission was resupply, including a stop to pick up a load for delivery to a partner country’s team at an austere location. The load weighed several thousand pounds, or so my operations staff said. When we arrived, the load was in crates wrapped in a cargo net. A three-man rigging team stood on top of the load, ready to fasten it to the hooks on the belly of the helicopter.

I was flying with Fred; it was his first flight since returning from leave in Canada. My flight engineers, Chris and Ray, also just back from leave, connected us to the load. With great precision, the trio brought our Chinook over the load, just two feet above the riggers’ heads. The load was hooked, the riggers moved off, and as the helicopter lifted the load 10 feet off the ground, we felt the entire craft strain. (I call it the “bending banana” effect: While the twin rotors pull toward the sky, gravity pulls the load toward the ground.) I checked the engine power we were demanding to ensure we would have enough reserve power to clear the 7,000-foot mountains ahead and get the load to its destination. The load was way over our all-up weight limits. Frustrated at the user’s effort to stow a little extra in the package, I directed Fred to put the helicopter down and order the riggers to get their forklift and offload the extra weight. We then took off to the drop-off point with our armed Griffon escort helicopters.

When we arrived at the landing zone, friendly forces were engaged in a firefight with insurgents south of our position. Because we were relatively heavy, our engine performance was limited and we were restricted to gentle maneuvering. As we deposited the load, one of the Griffons zoomed past us. I was thankful it was there, with its twin guns.

My crew and I logged another full day of flying time. I finished the night at my desk again. At least I could sleep in: The next day I was switching to a night flying program, moving soldiers to yet another austere location.

When we arrived in Kandahar, I had no office or even a computer. We lacked aircraft, policies, and directives. When the aircraft arrived, we had to teach ourselves its avionics, how to land in brown-outs, and how to sling complex loads. We wrote tactics, standard operating procedures, and a host of other directives. During my tour, Canadian Chinooks safely transported 5,000 passengers and 250,000 pounds of equipment.

I left Afghanistan in mid-April, knowing that other soldiers are going home to their families because we got them off the perilous roads. I’m proud of Chinook Flight. But I will never forget the ramp ceremonies for the 20 Canadian soldiers who died during my deployment, most of them killed by roadside bombs.

Jonathan Knaul wrote “Memories of Kosovo” for the Dec. 2000/Jan. 2001 issue. The two Boy Scouts mentioned in that story came to Canada under his initiative and now work in the Canadian aviation industry.

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