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Winging It To The Front Line

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An informative piece from Laurie Graham, in Khandahar.


Winging it to the Front Line: Laurie Graham, CBC


It's 2:30 in the morning and the skies above the Kandahar military base are dark. The tents, quiet.


It's sleep time for most of the 20,000 or so soldiers living here, but over at the airfield, the crew of the Helicopter Aviation Battalion is already up, preparing for the day's mission.


They are pilots, flight engineers and gunners and it's hard to tell them apart.


They enter the briefing room all dressed the same in their signature uniform, a beige one-piece jumpsuit.


These flight teams may be latecomers to the war in Afghanistan, but since their arrival a year and a half ago, they have made up for lost time.


"From April 1, 2009 to March 29, 2010, we have flown 34,000 passengers and 2.1 million pounds of cargo," says Jeffery Smyth, a lieutenant colonel with Canada's Air Wing.


Responsible for transporting supplies and soldiers to operating bases "outside the wire," the Air Wing flies the twin-engine CH-47 Chinook around the Kandahar desert under the watchful eye of Griffon escort helicopters.


These days, travelling by air is the safest means of movement for ground troops.


"Our eight Griffon and six Chinook work as a team to primarily keep NATO soldiers off the roads," says Col. Christian Drouin, Wing Commander of Joint Task Force Kandahar.


"The number one priority," he says, "is to ensure that no Canadian soldiers ride the IED infested roads of Kandahar when going in theatre or going back home for good."

'Follow your lead'


This morning, the air wing will be transporting nearly 200 Canadian and Afghan soldiers to the front lines. There are three pick-ups and drop-offs scheduled.


Sounds simple. But at the dawn briefing, pilots are told the first drop site has changed.


"The big problem today is sand," says Lt.-Col. Smyth. It was decided overnight that the original landing spot was just too dusty. So, instead, the commanders chose a less risky patch of land — a moist field of marijuana, which is common to the Afghan countryside.


The sudden switch, however, has made the pilots a little uneasy. Add to that, they have a CBC news crew tagging along.


My cameraman, Ousama Farag and I, are joining the members of Canada's Air Wing on this mission.


"Do you know what kind of risks you're taking by coming up with us?" asks Col. Drounn.


We nod tentatively, unsure how to answer.


"What will you do if your helicopter crashes," he asks me directly.


I look at him, pause, and say, "We'll follow your lead."


He smiles (at long last) and says, "Good answer."

A watchful dance


Ousama and I are fitted for helmets that have night-vision goggles attached.


Each of us is assigned to a different Chinook crew and, with a fist-pump on the tarmac, we separate.


My crew gives me a briefing and helps me adjust my night-vision goggles.


"If it gets messy," says Miguel Lourenco, a flight engineer, "just look for a hole and get out."


I am belted into a jump seat, centred behind the pilots and at about 4:45 a.m. we take off from Kandahar Airfield.


I am in the lead Chinook, Ousama is following.


Two Griffons travel on either side, keeping a watchful eye as the escorts. Two more Griffons are above, offering support and surveillance.


It's like a well-choreographed dance in the sky and Ousama and I are thrilled to be a part of it.

Night vision


As we head out, it is still dark and we can't see anything outside the cockpit until we pull down our goggles.


Suddenly everything becomes crystal clear, the landscape is revealed in tinted green.


It's an amazing feeling, being able to see through the night.


The operation is planned down to the minute; every intricate detail is outlined on paper. But now, our pilots have to put that into practice.


The first stop is a Canadian military operating base to the north where dozens of soldiers are waiting to be picked up.


As the aircraft makes a routine landing, the soldiers quickly climb on board.


It's dark in the cabin, but I can see them through my night-vision goggles.


They are loaded down with body armour and gear.


Squeezed in between the Canadians are a number of Afghan soldiers. Comrades in arms.


As the chopper lifts up, their young faces stare forward.


They're quiet, unsure it seems, of what's to come.

Patches of green


In the cockpit, the pilots aren't sure either of just what lies ahead.


"Overhead now," reports one of the Griffons from above. "Just getting eyes on, stand by." Below is a vast dry desert filled with bumps and crevices.


"I got the left side visual," says aircraft commander Maj. Andre Wistaff, "but that's where the dusty spot was as I understand it."


There are, however, patches of green in between the dirt and that's what our crews are aiming for.


"There's a small hard track running through the middle, which could be a good delineation to the left and right landing spot," says our mild-mannered commander.


As Wistaff reads maps and studies coordinates, his co-pilot, Capt. Nick Tremblay continues to guide the Chinook while monitoring the time.


"One minute," he says.


The crews have a designated amount of time for each drop-off and the last thing they want to do is hover in the sky long enough to attract enemy attention.


But finding the spot is proving to be a challenge. It is unfamiliar territory and the landing has to be precise.


The pilots know they're close, but they're not quite there and then, suddenly, up ahead, a Griffon comes to the rescue.


Like an angel in the sky, it throws down a "sparkle" — two beams of laser light that point directly on the landing spot.


"The hands of God," says Wistaff, while Tremblay lowers the helicopter gently down, landing smoothly on the brightly lit path.


"Gotta love modern technology," he says with a smile.


It doesn't go as well in the second Chinook, where Ousama is sitting.


"Just my luck," he tells me later.


As his pilot, Capt. Colin Hudson, begins to touch down, a dust ball rushes up around the chopper and he loses his visual point of reference.


He has to rely on feel, he tells Ousama, and be careful not to "overshoot" the target.


Their aircraft lands with the back end, first and then jolts forward with a bump.


Not as smooth as he would have liked, but Hudson hit his mark and everyone is safe.



At that moment, the back hatches open and dozens of soldiers run out into the dark desert where army tanks are waiting.


That is the first load done. The next two trips go off without a hitch and, an hour and half later, the pilots head back to base.


Mission accomplished.


"That was impressive," I tell the crew.


"I love my job," says Maj. Wistaff as he jumps down from the back of the aircraft.


"Just in time for breakfast," adds Tremblay, his co-pilot.


Ousama and I meet up and we're grinning from ear to ear.


We both feel relieved to be back safe and are thrilled to have spent the morning with Canada's air wing crew in Kandahar. A group of highly skilled professionals who risk their lives everyday for our country, and do it with a smile.


Read more: http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2010/04/01/f...l#ixzz0kPjHQ9SE

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  • 2 weeks later...

Don't be too rough on her writing now...I think Laurie was just trying to describe the landing conduct itself, and the particular nose-high, rear mounts first, way the Chinook normally lands, followed by the nose swinging down as the front mounts touch down. You may not have done them in Rucker or KAF, but a 60 kt run-on landing, with LCTs partially extended, will touch a Chinook down at a near-level / 4(6)-point landing attitude. ;)





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Don't be too rough on her writing now...I think Laurie was just trying to describe the landing conduct itself, and the particular nose-high, rear mounts first, way the Chinook normally lands, followed by the nose swinging down as the front mounts touch down. You may not have done them in Rucker or KAF, but a 60 kt run-on landing, with LCTs partially extended, will touch a Chinook down at a near-level / 4(6)-point landing attitude. ;)





A great story. Kudos to the news crew, and especially so to our fighting men. They are doing us and themselves proud. I'd like to see a story of what our non-combatent helicopter crews are doing but something like that might draw unwanted attention and retaliation from the Taliban. I'll have to wait until it's all over to get that story.

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