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Hercs air-drop supplies on a wing and a prayer

Paul Koring, Globe & Mail, 30 Oct 06

Article Link


KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — 'This is not how it's supposed to be," the voice over the cockpit intercom crackled yesterday.


Tension builds as the big Canadian Hercules is forced to loiter in the air, announcing its presence, wheeling around, waiting, waiting, while a pair of helicopters clear the drop zone at a remote base where fierce fighting between U.S. forces and Taliban this weekend killed 70 insurgents.


On board are 10 tonnes of food, water and humanitarian aid supplies.


But instead of the planned quick surprise dash, dropping low into the valley and letting the heavy pallets of much-needed supplies rumble out the back of the Hercules to parachute to the embattled base, the four-engine transport plane is in a holding pattern.


Every minute uses fuel, which is now low. Every minute betrays, to the Taliban, the return of the big target that made an identical drop in the same place a day earlier.


Shoulder-fired anti-aircraft rockets are a danger. At the low, slow, drop heights, so are AK-47s. Hercs come back from missions like these with holes in them. A few bullets in the wrong places and they don't come back.


"We're constantly thinking about the threat, constantly looking," Captain Mike Houle, the 28-year-old co-pilot, said, looking for a shepherd on the ground to suddenly lift a weapon, or the telltale streak of a missile.


Tactical flying -- hauling big aircraft around at low levels, hugging the terrain, dropping down into valleys, just clearing ragged ridges, takeoffs that throw the big plane into tight turns or stomach-churning steep dives that end in deliberately hard landings -- is all part of the little-known role Canada's Hercules play in Afghanistan.


Captain Gary Moore, 45, the aircraft commander, is on his sixth tour. Yesterday, he was irked by glitches and delays; they all added to the inherent risks. But calculating the risk also depends just how dire the situation is on the ground. "We're not dropping bullets to guys running out of bullets," Capt. Moore said. But they could be.


Finally, the drop zone is clear. Down the valley thunders the big Herc. Ahead, at the remote military outpost, a green smoke flare ignites. At just the right instant, the straps holding the cargo are cut and 10,000 kilograms fly out the gaping, open, rear door. Suddenly lighter, the big plane lurches. Behind, 14 pallets swing beneath parachutes drifting down into the green smoke.


In the cockpit, there's a last radio transmission to the soldiers on the ground: The commander "sends his condolences." Riding shotgun in the cockpit is Brigadier-General David Fraser, NATO's commander in southern Afghanistan, and he wants the Americans in the base below to know that he knows they have lost a comrade.


More than 100 Taliban attacked the base north of Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan province over the weekend. The Americans called in air strikes, and scores of Taliban were reported killed in battles that lasted hours. Hours later, a roadside blast killed one U.S. soldier and wounded eight others. It's a "very dangerous part of Afghanistan," Gen. Fraser said.


After the drop, the Canadian Hercules threads its way up a long, narrow canyon, its wingtips seemingly touching the rugged walls tipped red in the fading sunlight, before making a quick dash back to Kandahar. There Gen. Fraser will preside over the solemn ceremony as yet another NATO soldier goes home in a flag-draped coffin.


For the Canadian crew, yesterday's mission was the last after 18 hectic days in Afghanistan. Today, they will fly another of the three Hercules taking part in the mission in Afghanistan back to Camp Mirage, the main Canadian supply base in the Persian Gulf -- at a location the military insists cannot be disclosed even though it has been made public.


The Hercules crews, the pilots and navigators and flight engineers, the loadmasters who handle the cargo, and the maintenance crews and ground support personnel all work a gruelling 56-day rotation. Two-thirds of that time is spent flying between Camp Mirage and Afghanistan, delivering everything from mail to spare parts to munitions to keep Canada's 2,300 soldiers supplied. One-third of the time, they are based in Afghanistan flying the sort of difficult, dangerous missions like yesterday's air drop. "Everyone who comes here likes those 18 days, it's what we train for," Capt. Moore said. "The runs from Camp Mirage are still important but it's routine."


Most of the crews, from 436 Squadron in Trenton, Ont., already know when they are coming back.


They have been keeping that pace for five years, and it stretches ahead with no expectation that it will ease. The load has pushed up the rate at which pilots, navigators and flight engineers, as well as loadmasters and ground crews, are leaving the military, adding even more work to those who remain.


Meanwhile, Canada's elderly Hercules fleet is being flown harder than any other nation's.


In Afghanistan, where Canada has no helicopters, its Hercs and the crews willing to fly them into tough spots to air-drop supplies in remote and dangerous locations have won it a reputation. Air sickness bags get handed out a lot.


Yesterday's mission was with aircraft 337, "one of our youngest," Capt. Moore said with a grin. Still, at 33 years old, bought second-hand by Ottawa from an Arab Gulf state, the Herc is older than almost everyone on board.


Until the first of Canada's new, long-range, strategic jet transports arrives some time next summer, the hard-pressed Hercules will be forced to maintain the long-distance runs as well as the tactical flying for which it was designed.


The aircraft's age doesn't matter, Capt. Moore said. All of Canada's Hercules were effectively rebuilt in recent years, their engines upgraded to more powerful models, and modern avionics and defensive countermeasures added.


"They are impeccably maintained," he said. "We have the best 1965 Hercules out there."

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