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)
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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.

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