Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
Flying ‘Molson Air’

October 14, 2011  By Walter Heneghan

Canadian Helicopter’s operations in Afghanistan have become an integral part of the company’s growth

Canadian Helicopter’s operations in Afghanistan have become an integral part of the company’s growth. In the second quarter of 2011 alone, the company’s net income soared by $15.1 million, boosting overall revenues nearly 43 percent to $63.3 million. Much of the increase can be attributed to its contract work with the U.S. army.

 A passenger/cargo load of U.S. army soldiers prepares for departure.
(Photo courtesy of Canadian Helicopters)


Walter Heneghan, VP safety and quality, had a chance to join the team in Afghanistan. What follows is fascinating account of flying “Molson Air” during his three-week visit to the operation – and how it made him appreciate the efforts of every member of the Canadian team.

Saigon . . . shit: I’m still only in Saigon . . . Every time I think I’m gonna wake up back in the jungle.” – Capt. Willard, Apocalypse Now


This catchphrase bit of pop culture rattles through my head virtually every day that I’ve been here. Except this isn’t 1971 Vietnam as portrayed by Martin Sheen in the movie, Apocalypse Now: it’s modern-day, 21st century Afghanistan and I wake up in my plywood covered “B” hut.

I’m on standby today but a sleep-in is not in the cards as my body is now finely tuned to awaking at 0500, whether I want to or not. I lay there momentarily pondering my options – go back to sleep, lie there or just get up. It takes about 10 seconds to decide to get on with my day; the showers and latrine are quieter early in the morning and I know that I will only feel lousy if I force the sleep.

The author calls his three weeks flying in Afghanistan the experience of a lifetime. (Photo courtesy of Canadian Helicopters)


Yesterday, I was paired with a junior, low-time pilot, again on standby. We flew 4-1/2 hours! The area in east Afghanistan is spectacular. At the confluence of several valleys, one leaves the confines of a very industrious airfield and can fly westward over flat, dry, brown mud-like terrain towards the distant Tora Bora mountain range or northeasterly up the Pech or Kunar valleys toward Pakistan. These are severe valleys with mountain peaks of more than 10,000 feet, lush wherever the land is touched by water, caked mud brown otherwise. If the country could be irrigated, it would be green from valley floor to the sky. I feel like I am flying around Banff National Park all day, except I’m not . . .

Our mission here is to fly logistical, non-combat-related support flights for the U.S. army effort as part of the ongoing Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). And we are busy: flying our fleet of Sikorsky S-61 and Bell 212 aircraft daily on round trips up and down the valleys; shuttling soldiers, supplies, mail, aid workers, logistical support personnel, you name it.

Flying starts in the relative coolness of early morning (24 C at 7 a.m.) and continues through the dead heat (up to 40-plus C) of midday until an hour before sundown. “It’s a dry heat!” is a comment often heard coming from the flight crews, laughing as they swig bottle after bottle of Gatorade or water. Sweating is imperceptible; I can disembark for my aircraft soaking wet and, after standing on the ramp for five minutes, be bone dry. It is an amazing phenomenon. I heard a pilot a few days ago remark that he spent all day drinking water but never found the urge to go pee! It is that hot and dry.

The operation here has been running now for more than two years, and by all impressions is working very well. Canadian Helicopters initially won a single support contract to provide three B-212 aircraft. They arrived via Antonov 124 heavy-lift transport aircraft and set up shop: no facilities, no hangar, bare bones accommodations.

And they started flying. Today, there is a quasi-permanent tent style “Sprung Shelter” hangar, and a series of sea containers used as storage, lounge and office space. The fleet has expanded to include two S-61s and with a spare helicopter; there are now seven helicopters here. A second northern base of operations has another three S-61s and two B-212s. That makes 11 aircraft on contract with a spare shared between the two locations.

The Hindu Kush mountains loom in the background as a Bell 212 lands at the eastern Afghanistan base.
(Photo courtesy of Canadian Helicopters)


We are known here as “Molson Air.” Yes, it is a bit of a cliché but the anecdote goes like this: early in the operations, our aircraft began flying using their civil registrations, Charlie Mike Alpha Hotel Delta, for instance, for each movement in the operating area. The tower controllers were U.S. army; they were more accustomed to Cougar One-Niner, or Horseman Seventeen. Civil registrations as call-signs just were not going to work. The tower chief approached us with this problem: “We need something shorter, something distinct, something that will identify your operations but not be too specific,” he said. He suggested a single word would do; something quintessentially Canadian. I don’t know who he looked at but he thought that one thing Canadians do well is drink beer, and since we are Canadian Helicopters, he asked: “Isn’t there a beer in Canada called Canadian?” And so, “Molson Air” was born.

The team here is a conglomerate of the international helicopter pilot and mechanic industry. The men and women working at Molson Air come from every nook and cranny of experience and many have thousands of hours of flight time. They have travelled the world in pursuit of flying; Afghanistan is just another stop. The S-61 pilots are largely ex-heli logging experts, and they are used to long, hot days full of non-stop, production flying. The B-212 guys have tons of offshore and hot, dry and dusty exposure. The mechanics also bring decades of experience to the job. And the dispatchers; well, they are generally women. Somehow, it seems, that if you want to soothe the savage beast when it comes to ironing out the day’s plan of operations, a woman’s touch works best!

Preparing for landing at a German-controlled FOB in northeastern Afghanistan.
(Photo courtesy of Canadian Helicopters)


One of the biggest surprises for me is the sheer and raw beauty of the country. The mountains rise majestically from the desert sand, small towns of mud huts and terraced plateaus are woven throughout, and where water meets sand, there are lush fields of green, orchards and crops. At altitudes of 8,000 or 9,000 feet, it is common to see small collections of huts with mud-holding pens for the herds of sheep or goats that are grazing just beneath the snow line. The weather in the eastern province can be unpredictable, with rolling thunderstorms and swirling shifting winds throughout the day.

Earlier, during my stay at the northern base, I had the privilege of flying through the Barniyan Pass. The colours of the mountains, shifting from tan to black to copper to rust to green to orange – I have never seen anything like them. The land would be a rock-hound’s nirvana.

One thing this experience has revealed to me is that our staff are real pros. They are working half a world away from their families, in the desert heat and dust, and in a country at war. Their days are long; the aircraft are working to their design limits. The customer is demanding and the job is getting done, day after day, enduring.

I had a jaded view of the coalition effort here in Afghanistan before coming over to see our operation. It is less jaded now. Partly through the excellent novel, Three Cups of Tea bookended with the thrilling recounting of the Special Forces operations that started the Afghan offensive, The Horse Soldiers there is still, for me, a real cognitive dissonance about being here.

Flying starts in the coolness of the morning – 24 C. It generally warms up to more than 40 C, sending pilots for water and Gatorade.
(Photo courtesy of Canadian Helicopters)


When I am flying at 8,500 feet, MSL with six soldiers in the back en route to one of many forward operating bases, I am surrounded by the majesty of the Hindu Kush and Tora Bora mountain ranges – the “foothills” to the Himalayas. The greenery, the colours of the landscapes – it’s a privilege to experience the total sensual onslaught of the local topography that is juxtaposed with the reality that below on the valley floor, there is a ground war and that we are involved in a serious business. There is a real dissonance inside me.

I appreciate the work that is being done here now more than ever. As the VP of Safety and Quality at Canadian Helicopters, my ongoing condition is one of constant un-ease: Are we doing enough to manage risks? Fatigue? Client demands? Operational pressures? I now appreciate what we are achieving here, which goes beyond the business side of things: the dedication of the crews, the camaraderie, the coming together of a disparate group of aviation professionals from every conceivable background to make it work, to get the job done, and to do it, again and again, with full regard to safety. It is truly an impressive feat – one that’s hard to fully fathom.

Walter Heneghan joins Helicopters as a regular columnist beginning in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue, reporting on safety and quality issues.


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