Operating Griffons in Afghanistan
“We were a unique entity when we hit the ground in Kandahar. Brand new and untested, we were part gunship, part pick-up truck... and we were riding ‘shotgun,’” recalls Master-Corporal David Williams. He had previously deployed to Afghanistan in 2003 as part of Op Apollo, but that was with the sturdy CC130 Hercules, not CH146 Griffon helicopters. “I had witnessed just how unforgiving and harsh the desert environment can be to aviation assets, even for something as rugged as a Herc.” Now a Flight Engineer with 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, Williams must have wondered how the Griff was going to cope.
Helicopter gun ships conjure up the Francis Ford Coppola movie Apocalypse Now, especially the scene in which U.S. Army Hueys descend upon a Viet Cong village to the thunderous strains of Wagner. In contrast to this, when operated by the Canadian Forces – whether in Somalia, Haiti or Kosovo – helicopters were used as utility vehicles for troop transport, medevac, and search and rescue.
The Bell 412HP was built at Mirabel, Quebec, and the Canadian Forces received 99 of them between 1995 and 1997. Destined to be the Swiss Army knife of the military, the 412 was designated Utility Tactical Transport Helicopter (UTTH) CH146, more commonly called the Griffon. The multi-use platform came in two configurations, the UTTH and the Combat Support Squadron (CSS) version. Neither were deployed to Afghanistan where, without its own helicopters, Canada depended on airlift resources from its NATO allies.
All that changed in January 2008 with results from the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan headed by the Honourable John Manley. One key recommendation suggested that medium helicopter lift capability be secured immediately “to better ensure the safety and effectiveness of the Canadian contingent.”
The acquisition of six Chinook helicopters from the U.S. Army was followed by a November 2008 announcement that eight CH146 Griffon helicopters would also be deployed to Afghanistan as part of the Joint Task Force Afghanistan Air Wing.
The Griffons, with crews from Edmonton-based 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, were to act as escort aircraft for the Chinooks. This was a significant change in Canadian aviation doctrine, and one that DND had been preparing for.
As early as 2007, Close Combat Attack (CCA) procedures had been developed by Captains Ryan Tyler and Jean-Eude Ainsley, Project Officers at 403 Squadron, CFB Gagetown. These procedures would allow Griffons to use mounted C6 machine guns to react to fire support requests from Forward Air Controllers (FACs) in the field.
“Having the ability to provide offensive helicopter fire support can give a huge measure of confidence to soldiers on the ground,” explains Capt Tyler. Once the CCA procedures were approved, crews began supporting FAC courses and Land Force exercises in various locations across North America.
“Our training prior to deployment was varied and accurate as could be expected,” recalls MCpl Williams. “Before we could get to Wainwright there was CCA training in Fort Sill (Shilo, Manitoba) and then ‘dust ball’ training in Arizona. Dust balls are the obscuring phenomenon that occurs when a helicopter approaches loose soil or sand. As the rotor wash starts to pick up sand/dirt/debris, the downwash action re-circulates this cloud of dust, building it in size as it picks up more sediment... especially in the hover. In the last few moments of landing, this can be so severe that the aircrew may lose sight of all external references as this cloud of dirt envelops the helicopter. These are one of the biggest threats we face in the desert, and crews dedicate training time and practice both at home and in theatre to ensure these are carried out in the safest manner possible.”
Born and raised on an Alberta farm just outside of Breton, Williams always had a passion for aircraft and was raised, he says, “wrenching around farm machinery.” He joined the Air Force in 1997 as an Aviation Systems Technician (AVN Tech), and attended the Canadian Forces School of Aerospace Technology and Engineering at Borden, Ontario. Later posted to Trenton, he completed his journeyman status, specializing in propulsion systems/turboprops. In 2003, he was deployed to a Theatre Support Element in South West Asia as part of Op Apollo, maintaining the Hercs tasked with resupplying Camp Julien in Kabul. Returning home, he remustered to Flight Engineer in 2004 and was posted to 408 Sqn Edmonton after basic FE training. In December 2008, he deployed to Kandahar as part of Joint Task Force Afghanistan. As to the predeployment training, he says “it was all relevant. Bearing in mind it’s hard to simulate training with Chinooks when we don’t have Chinooks in Canada, we did have to do a bit of learning in theatre with our ‘feet to the fire.’ Just as the situation in theatre is ever changing, so was our training and response to that change.”
It is to the credit of all concerned that, on 6 December 2008, less than a year after the Manley report, Joint Task Force Afghanistan Air Wing in Kandahar counted six CH147D Chinooks, CU170 Heron unmanned aerial vehicles, eight CH146 Griffons and three CC130 Hercules in-theatre. Wing Commander Colonel Christopher Coates could rightly say how proud he was. “Our air and ground crews are experienced, skilled and enthusiastic… they have trained hard… to provide important enhanced support to our fellow Canadians and our Afghan and ISAF partners on the ground.” Both Coates and Williams knew that the severe Afghan environment they were to operate in would be a significant challenge. “Sand gets into absolutely everything,” Williams notes. “Avionics, engines, oil coolers, autopilot and CDU buttons, seat rails, helmet bags, box lunches, you name it. It mixes in with the slightest of oil leaks to form a paste which, if not dealt with in good time, gets baked into a hard crust by the hot sun. Paying special attention to oil/xmsn coolers is important on a preflight inspection.”
The key to keeping the Griffons in the sky is preventative maintenance. At the Fuel and Rearm Point (FARP), a secure, isolated area on the Kandahar Base for the re-arming of Hot Closed Circuit Refueling (HCCR) soon became commonplace. This is a special procedure that lets the crews refuel without shutting down, allowing for quick turnarounds. “Re-arming and refueling are both risky, so trained crews are present to carry out these duties allowing for quick turnarounds minimizing our times away from the FARP,” explains Williams. “Even something as simple as keeping a 1.5 inch paintbrush in the map case or a can of compressed air to dust off the buttons and gauges on a preflight or during a flight would stretch out the life of pushbutton components like autopilot panels. Religious cleaning of fine parts on mission kits like claw feet on seats and gun mount swivels reduced our dependency on replacement parts.”
In his opinion, Flight Engineers and Door Gunners have the best seats in the house. “In a day we could fly an escort mission for a Chinook, refuel, pick up some passengers/cargo and fly them to a FOB, refuel again, and then support ground troops and take the fight to the enemy. Our role provided a security/versatility that our ground troops deserved and appreciated. It saved lives, and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.”
How did the Griffon perform? “We had learned quickly what our limitations were, and had prepared ourselves for that even before deployment. Several systems were removed even before departure from Canada in the name of weight saving. However, once we arrived in theatre, we had refined our calculations to ensure we were squeezing every ounce of power we could to get the job done safe and effectively. We had started to appreciate not only our WAT limitations [Weight/Altitude /Temperature], but our ITT [Inter Turbine Temperature] limits as well, which are normally not a factor in Canada. We started to utilize our Hover Ceiling Charts more often than just simply referring to the Bell 1-1 WAT chart, giving us a more realistic performance picture.
“Operationally, much of the flying was down in the weeds, where sand and debris are ever-present. Though most of the landings were on at least semi-prepared surfaces (some FOBs used “rhino snot,” a thick layer of slime to cover the landing zone in order to keep the dust down), but dust ball landings are still a part of life there. Those landings are perhaps the hardest on the helos. We normally flew with the cargo doors removed for door gunning (and as a weight saving measure), so it got dirty quickly. The main rotor blades would require refinishing quite often as they were in a perpetual state of being sandblasted.”
Having logged over 1000 hrs on the Griffon with over 250hrs and 37 combat missions flown in theatre, MCpl Dave Williams returned home to Edmonton. “It was quite unlike any deployment I had experienced,” he concluded. “Usually, people aren’t trying to shoot at you and your friends, and vice versa... that adds a whole new dimension to the experience. There were ample opportunities where things could go wrong... very wrong, but they didn’t. I think that speaks volumes about our aircrews and ground crews, some great hands-and-feet flying, sound tactics, and good training.”
Peter Pigott was embedded with Canadian Forces in Kandahar. This article would not have been possible without the help of Capt Sue Ellen MacGowan, Directorate Air Public Affairs, Chief of the Air Staff, Ottawa and Capt Holly-Anne Brown, Public Affairs Officer,1 Canadian Air Division, NORAD Region Headquarters.
© FrontLine Defence 2009