Sea King off Libya

Canada’s Venerable Helicopter Shines During Operation Mobile
Peter Pigott
March 26, 2012
By Peter Pigott
Canada’s involvement in the Libyan conflict last year under Operation Mobile is now part of our country’s impressive military history, but the memories are still fresh for several crew members with the CH-124 Sea King on the HMCS Vancouver. Helicopters magazine caught up with four key Canadian Forces’ personnel and asked them to share their thoughts on our essential role in the operation.

Major Don Phillip said landing a Sea King on the flight deck of HMCS Vancouver always presented a real thrill.
(Photo courtesy of RCAF)


Maj. Don Phillip, HMCS Vancouver’s air detachment commander
“Flying a Sea King is an experience in itself,” said Phillip of the iconic RCAF rotary aircraft during the mission. “A traditional ‘stick and rudder’ helicopter, the Sea King has no computers assisting the pilots, so we have to land the 19,500-pound helicopter on a moving ship by ourselves, day or night, rain or shine, in any sea state.”

Part of 12 Wing, 443 Squadron is equipped with six CH-124 Sea King helicopters. On July 10 last year, one Sea King took off from its home base in Patricia Bay, B.C., to join HMCS Vancouver on its deployment to the Mediterranean Sea for Operation Mobile, the Canadian Forces’ participation in Operation Unified Protector, the United Nations-authorized, NATO-led effort to protect civilians in Libya. The mission? To enforce an arms embargo and no-fly zone on the former regime.

Under the call sign, Trojan, the helo’s primary focus was patrolling the waters off the Libyan coast. The air detachment on board consisted of four pilots, two air combat system officers (ACSO), two airborne electronic sensor operators (AES Op) and 11 technicians. The crew followed the directions from the ACSO, flying at various altitudes and areas to cover the assigned patrol box. Their job was to provide an extension of HMCS Vancouver’s sensors to build the Recognized Maritime Picture and conduct Maritime Interdiction Operations in support of Vancouver’s mission to enforce the arms embargo while allowing humanitarian aid to flow into Libya.

One Sea King helicopter took off from its home base in Patricia Bay, B.C., to join HMCS Vancouver on its deployment to the Mediterranean Sea for Operation Mobile.
(Photo courtesy of RCAF)

Once on station, the crews flew two sorties daily to search for vessels transiting from the many Libyan ports, developing a maritime picture for HMCS Vancouver and establishing the pattern of life in the region. After a day of patrolling, the maintenance crew worked to refuel, re-arm and prepare Trojan for the next day’s mission. The detachment also held an “Alert 30” status at all times to react to any situation that required the aircraft. (This means that from a dead sleep, the technicians and the crew can launch Trojan in 30 minutes to perform whatever mission is required.)

Operating at low level in a war zone, in what is considered a “high threat environment,” the CH124 assigned to the detachment had been fitted with a trial version of the Augmented Surface Plot (ASP) system. The ASP system integrates radar returns, GPS and the Automatic Information System (AIS) Horizon onto one system equipped with a map overlay. From a tactical standpoint, this has proven to be a force multiplier by augmenting the current navigation system. Trojan had also been fitted with a full Self Defence Suite (SDS) suite, providing an additional layer of protection to the crew, making it the most advanced CH-124 ever to deploy with the Canadian Forces.

“The Sea King is also equipped with crash-resistant fuel cells located in the belly of the aircraft,” Phillip said. “We have two hydraulics systems that work in tandem to fly the bird. The systems are capable of flying on one but we consider it an emergency at that point because if we lose the other, we would no longer be able to control the aircraft.”

When asked what effect the Mediterranean/desert environment had on the Sea King’s engines, Phillip said, “The engines were very reliable and capable of producing a lot of power in the hot temperatures there. At the end of each day, the engines were fresh water rinsed to wash off the sand and salt water that was ingested throughout the flight.”

Phillips said landing on the flight deck of HMCS Vancouver always presented a real thrill. “The flight deck is only as big as eight parking spots and it moves; pitching fore and aft as high as four degrees and can roll up to 20 degrees,” he said. “The pilot focuses on visual cues and receives conning from a landing signal officer to aim for a moving spot that is two feet by two feet.”

Pte. John Gerlach, junior AES Op, HMCS Vancouver
As a new airborne electronic sensor Operator (AES Op) having just graduated from a CH-124 Sea King type course, Gerlach was thrown right into the deep end with Operation Mobile. But he considers himself “very lucky” to to have sailed with HMCS Vancouver’s Helicopter air detachment.

The ASP system, combined with the new Self Defence Suite, has created the most technologically advanced Canadian Sea King ever to deploy. (Photo courtesy of RCAF)
“Everything I experienced was new to me and landing on a ship for the first time was no exception,” he said. “My first experience at sea was the day we flew Trojan to HMCS Vancouver on July 10. After landing on the ship and having never been at sea, I was feeling a little seasick the following day, so as you can imagine it was a relief to get into the air and have a relatively steady deck. In the days ahead, I got my chance to hone my skills.”

Gerlach said he quickly had to prepare himself and learn the new ASP system, which he notes “was a very useful and important tool on the mission.” The system, combined with the new Self Defence Suite, have created the most technologically advanced Canadian Sea King ever to deploy. The ASP system combines the legacy radar display with a full map overlay, increasing the ability to track and classify contacts, particularly small ones.

An AES Op’s role in the helo is to operate the radar, sonar and FLIR, and provide sensor information to the ACSO. Other duties include the maintenance and operation of weapon stores such as the C6 machine gun, sonobuoys, and smoke markers. The AES Op also trains in conducting utility operations such as vertical replenishment at sea (VERTREP) and hoisting personnel from land, ship or the sea in order to support search-and-rescue operations.

“On our way to Libya, I was able to participate in force protection exercises to help prepare us for the road ahead, more specifically using the helicopter to help protect the ship from small fast attack craft,” Gerlach said. “One of the scenarios we practised, was to gain the compliance of an approaching vessel. To do so, we would fly low over the water, I would hold a large stop sign in the cargo door on which I painted “stop” in both English and Arabic. If the vessel were to continue, I would be ordered to conduct warning shots with the C6 and then if the vessel still continued to threaten the ship, I could be ordered to engage.”

While the helo patrolled off the coast of Libya, Gerlach was able to find several small boats leaving various harbours and to provide the ship with information through the use of sensors, cameras, and gyro stabilized binoculars. “In some cases we even hailed these vessels to gather more information,” he said.

“It was a great feeling to be in the air – a taste of freedom and a break from the ship,” he said. “Combine that with the various tasks and roles required of an AES Op – and a great view from the cargo door – and no day was exactly the same. I often thought to myself that I have one of the best jobs in the world.”

Master Cpl. George Meechan, technician, HMCS Vancouver
When the Navy sends a ship on a long deployment, such as Vancouver’s mission on Op Mobile, they like to have a helicopter on board. The helicopter can provide the ship’s commanding officer with a much greater war fighting capability and other abilities such as casualty evacuation, (CASEVAC), VERTREP and passenger transfer.

Usually, for a long deployment, the helicopter chosen for the mission is one that has just come out of overhaul. Prior to the deployment, the maintainers will replace all the components that will become time expired, and “this can place a heavy workload on technicians working long hours, putting a lot of stress on families who won’t be seeing their loved ones for the foreseeable future,” Meechan said. “Regardless it must be done and we all count on the support of our families.”

When on board a ship, all crew ship’s members are all “sailors first” – which means they are part of the ships’s company and take their turn in the evolutions that keep the ship running, such as cleaning stations and duty watches. Beyond that, all technicians in the air detachment have a minimum of two jobs on board. The first priority begins with work on the helicopter, a secondary duty that can often take up as much time as the primary job. These include Aviation Life Support Equipment (ALSE); Supply; Petroleu-Oil-Lubricants (POL); Non-Destructive Testing (NDT); Sample of Aviation Product (SOAP-fluids analysis); Air Maintenance Support Equipment (AMSE); and Tool Control.
“With every deployment there is a learning or relearning curve,” Meechan said. “Skills can get rusty when you’ve been ashore for a while so when the helicopter lands on the flight deck for the first time, the pressure to get the job done right becomes all too real.”

Working the deck and hangar is similar to what members of the Air Force do on land operations: performing cargo hoists, passenger transfers, helicopter-in-flight refuelling (HIFR) and other evolutions. “Much like our land-based counterparts, we often did this in low light or pitch darkness,” said Meechan. “But unlike them, we are faced with carrying out these tasks on something that is akin to working on the back of a mechanical bull on low setting.”

Capt. Bianca Einsfeld, Trojan’s air combat officer, HMCS Vancouver
Einsfeld is an ACSO by trade, and known as a tactical coordinator (TACCO) aboard the CH124 Sea King helicopter. She is a member of HMCS Vancouver’s air detachment and was the operations officer (OpsO) for this deployment. “As the OpsO, it was my responsibility to organize the flight program to include both our mission and training requirements all while balancing the rigorous maintenance schedule,” she said. “This was a daunting task and filled up most of my day while on the ship and not in the air flying.”

Once on station, the crews flew two sorties daily to search for vessels transiting from the many Libyan ports, developing a maritime picture for HMCS Vancouver and establishing the pattern of life in the region. (Photo courtesy of RCAF)
On board the Sea King, as a TACCO, Einsfeld directed the crew in order to accomplish whatever mission they were assigned to do. Her primary focus was navigation and tactics. She ensured they maintained stand-off distances when required, provided direction when conducting identification runs on contacts and maintained an overall picture of what surrounded them. She also tracked and classified contacts and ensured the ship was made aware of any suspicious vessels or activities in the area.

“As a junior TACCO, this deployment was an enriching and exciting experience,” she said. “I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn my job during an actual operational deployment. Being Air Force on a NATO deployment in the Navy is like travelling to a foreign country. Everyone around you speaks in a different language and uses acronyms that you are not accustomed to. It makes you feel as if you are immersed in a culture far different from your own. This was my first operational deployment, as it was for most of our two Sea King crews. It was a steep learning curve, understanding how to operate not only in a multinational task group, but also how to operate within the constraints of the Navy.”

The air detachment was tasked with many different types of missions in Libya, from personnel transfer and medevacs to contact investigation. Their primary focus was to build a recognized maritime picture (RMP) for the ship.

“We extended the ship’s radar and AIS horizon and were able to provide information to build up a better picture of what was surrounding us,” said Einsfeld. “We aided in gathering information for building patterns of life in the area of operations. Having a chance to work with all this new equipment was also a great transition for what is to come with the future deployment of the CH-148 Cyclone.”

Einsfeld said her experience in Libya will be hard to forget. “I found that for some, it’s easy to forget why we were out here, sitting off the coast of Libya, just miles from shore. Since we weren’t on the ground fighting the war, it may have felt like we weren’t accomplishing much. But we were keeping ports open and allowing humanitarian aid to reach those in need – as well as stopping arms from making their way into the hands of the former regime. And, if nothing else, we were showing a presence, which was a great deterrent. Sometimes it’s good that nothing seems to be happening – it means we were being effective.”

Peter Pigott would like to thank lieutenant (Navy) Anthony (Tony) Wright, Task Force Vancouver public affairs officer, HMCS Vancouver, for his help in co-ordinating the crew interviews.

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