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Farewell to Dustballs and Rhino Snot

Helicopters correspondent Peter Pigott recently travelled to Afghanistan and was embedded with the Canadian Forces (CF) in Kandahar. He reports on the critical role of the Griffon helicopter and its CF air and ground crews in Afghan operations as part of the Joint Task Force Afghanistan (JTFA) Air Wing.


May 3, 2011
By Peter Pigott

Topics

Helicopters correspondent Peter Pigott recently travelled to Afghanistan and was embedded with the Canadian Forces (CF) in Kandahar. He reports on the critical role of the Griffon helicopter and its CF air and ground crews in Afghan operations as part of the Joint Task Force Afghanistan (JTFA) Air Wing.

With the end of the Canadian Forces combat mission in Afghanistan fast approaching, a seamless transition from the Kandahar region for the allies remains the ultimate goal.

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Canadian Forces’ Griffon sets a course to begin Operation MOSHTARAK in Afghanistan. (Photo by Master Cpl. Craig Wiggins, Flight Engineer, JFTK Afghanistan, Roto 8)


For the Bell CH-146 Griffon, it marks the end of a mission – one that has seen the tactical utility aircraft do a little bit of everything for the CF, including reducing the risk of exposing personnel to ambushes, land mines and improvised explosive devices, and providing protection to troops on the move.

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“We currently have eight CH-146 Griffons in theatre,” said Capt. Isabelle Bresse of Air Force public affairs, “and the mission closeout activities will be done in such a way so as not to impact the Task Force’s ability to conduct ongoing operations as part of ISAF, under which Canada will cease combat operations in July 2011.”

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Door gunner, Master Cpl. Craig Wiggins, provides security from a CH-146 Griffon helicopter during an escort mission.
(Photo by Master Cpl. Angela Abbey, Canadian Forces Combat Camera)


 

Master Cpl. David Williams, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2003 as part
of Operation Apollo, is all too familiar with the harsh effects of the
Afghan environment on aviation operations. “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,’ ” said
Williams, who was first deployed to Afghanistan with the CC-130 Hercules
transports. “I had witnessed just how unforgiving and harsh the desert
environment can be to aviation assets…even for something as rugged as a
Herc.” Later deployed as a flight engineer with 408 Tactical Helicopter
Squadron, Williams must have wondered how the Griffon going to cope –
he would certainly find out.

A Valued Performer
Whether operated by the CF in Somalia, Haiti or Kosovo, helicopters have
been used as utility vehicles – for troop transport, medevac and search
and rescue. The Bell 412HP, was built in Mirabel, Que. and between 1995
and 1997 the CF received 99 of them. Destined to be the “Swiss Army”
knife of the military, the 412 was designated Utility Tactical Transport
Helicopter (UTTH) CH-146, more commonly called the Griffon.

The multi-use rotary platform came in two configurations: the Utility Tactical Transport Helicopter (UTTH), and the Combat Support Squadron (CSS) version. Originally, neither were deployed to Afghanistan, where without its own helicopters, Canada depended on airlift resources from its NATO allies. That changed in January 2008, when one of the recommendations of the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan, headed by former deputy prime minister and foreign affairs minister John Manley, was “to better ensure the safety and effectiveness of the Canadian contingent,” by immediately securing medium helicopter lift capability. The acquisition of six Chinook helicopters from the U.S. army was followed by the announcement, on Nov. 26, 2008, that eight CH-146 Griffon helicopters would also be deployed to Afghanistan as part of the Joint Task Force Afghanistan (JTFA) Air Wing.

  Supporting Role

The CH-146 Griffon fleet will be well taken care of after its deployment to Afghanistan finishes up, thanks to a long-term deal with Bell Helicopter.
The $640-million deal awarded to Bell earlier this year by the federal government is called the “Optimized Weapon System Support” (OWSS) contract. It includes aspects of management services, engineering and technical publications, aircraft maintenance services, and spare and consumable parts.
The OWSS deal combines three existing contracts providing engineering support, repair and overhaul support, and supplies for the Griffon program. The contract will be worth close to $1 billion if the four-year options are picked up. The majority of the work on the Griffons will be done at Bell facilities in Mirabel, Que., and Calgary.
“With this contract, the CH-146 fleet enters a new era of support,” said Barry Kohler, president of Bell Helicopter Canada. “We look forward to working together to make the CH-146 fleet a highly successful one, capable of meeting the most challenging tasks assigned to it in the interest of national security.”

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A Canadian Forces (CF) CH-146 Griffon helicopter lands at Deerhurst Resort after providing air mobility support to the 2010 Muskoka G8 Summit.
(Photo by Cpl. Pierre Thériault, Canadian Forces Combat Camera)


 

With crews from 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron based in Edmonton,
Alta., the Griffons were to act as escort aircraft for the Chinook
transports. It was a significant change in Canadian aviation doctrine
but one that DND had been preparing for. As early as 2007, Close Combat
Attack (CCA) procedures had been developed by Capt. Ryan Tyler and Capt.
Jean-Eude Ainsley, project officers at 403 Squadron, CFB Gagetown. The
procedures would allow CH-146 helicopters 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,” said Cpt. Tyler. Once the CCA procedures were approved, crews began supporting FAC courses and land force exercises in various locations across North America.

It is to the credit of all concerned that on Dec. 6, 2008, less than a year after the Manley Report, the men and women of the Joint Task Force Afghanistan Air Wing paraded at their base in Kandahar. The Air Wing included six CH-147D Chinooks, CU-170 Heron unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), eight CH-146 Griffons and three CC-130 Hercules, already in theatre. Wing commander Col. Christopher Coates could rightly say how proud he was.

“Our air and ground crews are experienced, skilled and enthusiastic,” he said. “They have trained hard to deploy here to provide important enhanced support to our fellow Canadians and our Afghan and ISAF partners on the ground.” But the Canadians knew that the severe Afghan environment they were to operate in was going to be as much a challenge as the enemy. “Sand gets into absolutely everything,” Williams said. “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 that if not dealt with in good time, gets baked into a hard crust by the hot sun. This meant that paying special attention to oil coolers was important on a preflight inspection.”

The key to keeping the Griffons in the sky was preventive maintenance. At the fuel and re-arm point (FARP), a secure, isolated area on the Kandahar base that allowed for the re-arming of helos, 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 refuelling are both risky, so trained crews were present to carry out these duties, allowing for quick turnarounds minimizing our times away from the FARP,” said Williams. “Even something just a 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 push-button 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.”

A Bird’s Eye View
In William’s’ opinion, the flight engineers and door gunners had the best seats in the house during flight ops with the Griffons. “In a day we could fly an escort mission for a Chinook, then refuel, pick up some passengers/cargo and fly them to an FOB, refuel again, and then support ground troops and take the fight to the enemy,” he said. “I think our role provided a security and versatility that our ground troops deserved and appreciated. It saved lives, and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.”

And just how did the Griffon perform? Williams explained that pilots and
maintenance teams learned quickly what the aircraft’s limitations were,
and had prepared for that even before deployment. “Several systems were
removed even before departure from Canada in the name of weight
saving,” he said. “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 safely and effectively. We had started to
appreciate not only our WAT [weight, altitude, temperature] limitations,
but our ITT [inter turbine temperature] limits as well (which is
normally not a factor back here in Edmonton…or anywhere in Canada for
that matter). 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 picture of our performance.”

Operationally, much of the flying was down in the weeds, where sand and
debris were ever present. Though most of the landings were on at least
semi prepared surfaces, dust ball landings were still a part of life
there. “Those landings were perhaps the hardest on the helos,” Williams
said. “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.”

Some FOBs used “rhino snot,” a thick layer of slime developed by the
U.S. Marines at Camp Rhino to cover the landing zone in order to keep
the dust down. (The U.S. army first used Envirotac, the syrupy “goo”
that is mixed with water and applied as a top dressing to harden loose
soil at a Harrier base in Yuma, Ariz., in the late 1990s. In 2002, it
was put into use at Camp Rhino in Afghanistan and the U.S. Marines
started calling the goo “rhino snot.” The material eventually breaks
apart and is environmentally friendly.)

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During a simulation exercise, a team carries a stretcher off a CH-146 Griffon helicopter as part of Operation Nanook, one of three major recurring sovereignty operations conducted annually by the Canadian Forces in Canada’s Arctic. (Photo by Cpl. Jax Kennedy, Canadian Forces Combat Camera)


 

Homeward Bound
Having logged more than 1,000 hours on the Griffon with some 250-hour and 37 combat missions flown in theatre, 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, and the rewarding part was that everybody got on that big airplane home. I think that speaks volumes about our aircrews and ground crews, some great hands-and-feet flying, sound tactics, and good training.”

With Canada’s role in Afghanistan coming to a close,  many changes are in store for both the troops and the helicopters deployed there. The Joint Task Force Afghanistan Air Wing will be supporting mission transition activities throughout the end of the combat mission scheduled for July 31, 2011. Rotary-wing operations, said Bresse, will cease no later than the end of August, and all CF helicopters will be redeployed to Canada shortly thereafter. Upon return to Canada, they will be sent to Montreal (Bell Helicopter) for thorough inspection and refurbishment. According to the Air Force Public Affairs office, no decision has yet been made as to how the helicopters will be reintegrated into the overall inventory.

Dependable Asset
The CH-146 Griffon has been a mainstay for the Canadian Forces since being introduced in 1995. Here’s a look at the aircraft’s chief roles in the past, a consideration of its uses going forward and a breakdown of its specs.

Primary and Future Uses: SAR (home and abroad) – though there have been questions about the aircraft’s suitability for the rigours of the job – surveillance and reconnaissance; casualty evacuation; counter-drug operations.

Notable Operational Highlights: Manitoba’s Red River flood (operational assistance), 1997; Eastern Canada’s ice storm (Operation Recuperation), 1998; United Nation’s effort to stabilize Haiti (Operation Helo) 2004; Security support for major Canadian events such as the Winter Olympic Games (Operation Podium), G-8 and G-20 Summits (Operation Cadence), 2010; SAR relief of trapped motorists in blizzard conditions on Highway 402 in southern Ontario (Operation Canton), 2010; military utility role, War in Afghanistan (Operation Apollo), 2011.

Aircraft Specifics:

  • Length: 17. 1 m
  • Rotor span: 14 m
  • Height: 4.6 m
  • Power plant: Pratt & Whitney PT6T-3D engine
  • Maximum speed: 260 km/h
  • Range: 656 km
  • Crew: two pilots, one flight engineer
  • Passengers: 10


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