Canadian air wing takes flight in Afghanistan Six leased Russian helicopters and six Chinooks will

GRAEME SMITH
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
November 18, 2008 at 5:45 AM EST

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — Two rented helicopters lifted into the orange sky over Kandahar at dawn yesterday, their flight marking the first time Canadian troops have received support on the front lines from their own aircraft.

The helicopters are among six leased Russian Mi-8s that started work for the Canadians yesterday, part of a new Canadian air wing in Afghanistan that will also include six used Chinooks.

Canada's battle group moved into southern Afghanistan in 2006 without any helicopters, unlike the British, U.S., and Dutch forces. The lack of air assets forced the Canadians to rely more heavily on road convoys, which the Canadian commanders described at the time as an advantage because it would give the troops more familiarity with the Afghan people and terrain.

But regular traffic of military vehicles on Afghan roads has proven deadly for Canadian soldiers as the rising insurgency targets supply convoys. The problem was highlighted by John Manley's commission on Afghanistan, which set a deadline of February, 2009, for obtaining medium-lift helicopters.

"Resulting from the Manley report last spring, Canada decided to deploy what we're calling some new air capabilities," said Colonel Christopher Coates, Canada's recently arrived Air Wing Commander for Kandahar.

"We'll get some other benefits from having aircraft travelling in the air as well, but primarily we're there to move cargo and personnel and get them off the roads."

The helicopters are part of an old fleet of Russian-built transport helicopters that recently worked in Sudan. Some of the pilots served in

Afghanistan as part of the Soviet military, flying similar helicopters during the war against the mujahedeen in the 1980s. They flashed thumbs-up as they strapped on body armour.

As commercial pilots, however, the crews will not be allowed to shoot back from the air if threatened by ground fire.

"We don't return fire," said Bob Waring, project director for SkyLink Aviation, the Toronto company that won the $36-million chopper contract.

Mr. Waring hinted that the protection rules would change if his aircraft are shot down or forced to land, but he declined to comment about whether his crews carry weapons.

Measures are in place to protect crews in case of emergency landings, he said.

Canada has reportedly considered sending CH-146 Griffons to guard the transport helicopters, but decided to leave protection duties up to other NATO allies.

Shortly after watching his Mi-8s lumber into the sky without any apparent escort, the project director said his company has the benefit of military intelligence and will fly only to places where the risks are acceptable.

"There are some of our crew members who have some previous flying experience in this neck of the woods," Mr. Waring said.

SkyLink is initially working with a mixed fleet of "T" and "MTV" model Mi-8s, but the company plans to shift towards using only MTVs, which are designed for high temperatures and altitudes. They will carry only cargo, mostly resupplying forward bases.

Under the complicated pooling agreement for NATO aircraft, Canada is not guaranteed priority for using its own helicopters. Troops from other countries may need the air support more urgently, in which case the NATO command could send them to help other soldiers in the southern region.

But leasing the aircraft allows the Canadians to gain leverage in the struggle for air assets, the wing commander said. "They may end up flying Canadian missions, like today, or may end up flying in support of British or American forces," Col. Coates said.

"If the priority for us that day perhaps is moving troops not cargo but we're contributing Mi-8s, then maybe what those Mi-8s can do is transport some British cargo and we'll use British Chinooks to transport the troops.

About 200 extra Canadian personnel are expected as part of Canada's expansion of its air forces in the country. Other new arrivals will include the used U.S. CH-47D Chinooks recently purchased for $292-million, and unmanned surveillance aircraft leased for $109-million.

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