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Departing Troops Praise Hard-Working Canadian Choppers

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Departing troops praise hard-working Canadian choppers


By Matthew Fisher, Postmedia News July 3, 2011


ABOARD BLOW TORCH 62 OVER PANJWAII, Afghanistan — With temperatures in the mid-forties and the sky hazy from a sandstorm, it was a typical summer's afternoon when a Canadian Chinook helicopter and its two Griffon escorts set off on a 14-stop marathon, zigzagging across Kandahar to ferry homeward bound Canadian combat troops in from scattered forward bases and take their American replacements out to the same isolated outposts in the Taliban heartland.


As Canada's Task Force Kandahar formally hands over its battle space to the U.S. army this Thursday, the universal opinion of the fighting soldiers is that more of them would have died if they had not been able to count on the battered but dependable Vietnam-era Chinook D model transport helicopters.


Ottawa bought six of the choppers from Washington late in 2008 after the Manley Report recommended that the Afghan mission should end if they were not acquired. The panel reasoned that the lives of too many troops were being put at risk on ground patrols and convoys because of homemade bombs planted by the Taliban.


"There were very strong reasons to bring aviation into this theatre," Col. Al Meinzinger, the air wing commander said. "The roads were really dangerous."


But there were many other benefits, Meinzinger said.


"Tactical aviation has not had a chance to be close to the army like this for many years. This has been a chance to intimately support the battle group. The army's company commanders and younger captains understand the importance of aviation. They are going to advocate for aviation and that is a key takeaway."


One of the Chinooks' fans has been Lt.-Col. Michel-Henri St. Louis, who has commanded the 1 Royal 22e Regiment battle group since last fall.


"The helicopters have been huge," said St. Louis, whose infantrymen, engineers, gunners and tankers, are the last rotation of troops here to benefit from the helicopters since the aircraft with Maple Leaf rondelles began flying here in December, 2008. "They have given the ground force the ability to move without being hindered by roads."


Although each Chinook has three door gunners of its own, they have almost always been guarded by a pair of much smaller Griffon helicopters equipped with Gatling guns and highly sophisticated scopes. This lethal combination has permitted the Chinooks to take part in a series of dedicated air assault missions in southern Afghanistan.


One such mission was a night operation in support of U.S. Marines and British army troops in Helmand early in 2010 that with about 100 choppers — including nine Canadian aircraft — airborne at the same time, was perhaps the biggest such assault since the Vietnam War.


"We have done deliberate 'ops,' where there has been an element of surprise," said Capt. Nicolas Duval, who flies Chinooks here. "We see the end results with the prisoners and weapons caches that are captured because of that element of surprise. This spring has brought a harvest of weapons."


Meinzinger, who flies Griffons, said that when Brig.-Gen. Dean Milner's task force seized the Horn of Panjwaii from the Taliban last winter, achieving that goal would have been a stretch without helicopter support.


"General Milner has wanted to keep the insurgents off balance and we have the ability to do that," the colonel said. "In the wee hours of the morning, we can insert a company in the back door of a district."


But the Chinooks' main role in Kandahar has been to provide transport. Over the past 31 months, they have carried 92,000 passengers and six million pounds of cargo. One of Canada's Chinooks was hit last year by a Taliban missile and crashed. Another was wrecked during a night landing several months ago. But no lives were lost in either crash.


"This is a pretty typical milk run with lots of forward operating bases in five hours," said Master Cpl. Lourenco Miguel, the flight engineer, who doubled as a tail gunner on the ramp at the back of the chopper.


"I had an army background before so the transition to this was not too hard," said Miguel, who is on his sixth overseas tour. "I understand what the guys down below are doing.


"When you fly outside the wire the adrenaline is pumping. I'm loving every minute of it."


"Although Canada's combat troops will all be home by the end of July, to lift some of their gear out of forward bases, the Chinooks and Griffons are to keep flying until sometime in August. The rumor is that the Americans will buy the venerable D models back and sell them to the Australians or that Canada will sell them directly to the Australians.


Having sold its first fleet of Chinooks in 1992, Canada has now decided to stay in the Chinook business. It is to take delivery of 15 state-of-the-art Chinook F models beginning next year. The helicopters are to be based at Petawawa, Ont. in the Upper Ottawa Valley.


"Those Chinooks will be our workhorses," said Duval, who hopes to be one of the pilots selected to fly them. "They can overfly the Northwest Passage. They can be used on sovereignty operations. They can be an air bridge. Like in Afghanistan, they can do a lot of different things."


© Copyright © Postmedia News


[PHOTO: Aboard Blow Torch 62 over Panjwaii, Afghanistan -- Master Cpl. Lourenco Miguel mans a gun on the back ramp of a Canadian Chinook helicopter as a Griffon helicopter flying sentry flies in the distance.The Chinooks and their escorts were much loved by combat troops now making their back to Canada. The combat mission ends in the next few days, but the helicopters will still be flying cargo out of forward bases through next month. Photograph by: Matthew Fisher, Postmedia News]


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