Memories of Kosovo

A helicopter pilot recalls his peacekeeping tour of duty over one of the world’s most strife-torn regions.

Norwegian troops (in rearmost rank) took over sponsorship of the First Kosovar Scouts, local school-age kids, when the Canadians returned home. (Jonathan Knaul)
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The four Swedish soldiers jump aboard our aircraft, each carrying a backpack weighing about 80 pounds. With the snow and added weight, the takeoff will be even trickier than the landing. We are tight on fuel, close to the Serbian border, and we cannot linger on the ground. Alain calls “Ready” and I commence the takeoff. Feeling the urgency to depart, I yank the helicopter off the ground. Instantly our aircraft is smothered in snow and all three of us lose sight of the ground. There is only one option, so our eyes immediately go to the instruments to keep the helicopter level and climbing—a tough transition to make rapidly when you have been looking outside for the past hour.  The troops in the back are oblivious to all this; they’re just happy to be in a warm place. My fingers tense as I imagine the wires to the left of me and the trees to the right, which I can no longer see. Alain is unable to keep his head outside the aircraft because of the intense blowing snow. The seconds feel like hours, and a sense of frustration washes over me. I want to see outside and be reassured that we’re clear of the obstacles. Finally we break out of the snow cloud and find our aircraft in a safe climb out of the valley.

We still have to weave through more valleys to clear the clouds on our way home. Mindful that valleys are ideal places to hit electrical wires, my eyes strain to detect surprises. We are also low on fuel, and the doors start to close around us. Back in Canada this would not be as big a problem—we are in a helicopter and can land in any open field. But this is Kosovo, where there are reported to be more than 20,000 buried mines in the British-Canadian area of responsibility alone. Stéphane knows how to work the fuel-remaining numbers, and minutes later we break out of the mountains and into the lights of Pristina. We drop off our passengers at the Swedish camp on the outskirts of the capital. The weather is much improved between here and the Canadian camp, and we have enough fuel to make it back with a safe reserve.

Back at the Canadian camp we hover-taxi to our parking spot and shut down. Three technicians drive up, bundled in so many layers of clothing that they look like astronauts on a spacewalk. I watch them hook up a tow bar and jack the skids up on trolleys, their reddened and numb fingers desperately trying to work on the stubborn metal parts in the cold. The ground crew are wizards, and I owe them a lot. During a six-month period, they kept at least six of our eight aircraft serviceable every day.

In the distance, I can see Corporal Bill Street walking the helicopter line. Street is a military policeman with a wife and young child back in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He’s part of the Canadian Airfield Security Force, and his job for an entire six-month tour is to pull 12-hour shifts guarding our helicopters and the airfield.

I will fly more missions tomorrow, and Bill Street will be out here again all night, shivering and protecting my helicopter. My mother will be warm in her Toronto apartment, worried sick. But I get my comfort throughout this time in Kosovo from the pride I feel in being a peacekeeper and a Canadian.

Captain Jonathan Knaul returned from Kosovo in June 2000 and continues to serve as a pilot with his unit based at Valcartier, Quebec.

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