by Colonel Christian Drouin

Col. Christian Drouin

In honour of the anniversary of the 100th year of the first flight in Canada, my Wing Chief Warrant Officer Gaudreault suggested that we rename the Joint Task Force — Afghanistan Air Wing as "Task Force SILVER DART". I thought it was a great idea and we made it happen. I assumed command of TF SILVER DART on 17 November 2009 and the plan is for my Air Wing to support our Canadian Mission in Afghanistan until we are replaced in September 2010.

Now, it´s 0500 in the morning on Sunday 9 May 2010. My alarm clock just went off, but it is actually half an hour later than the time I usually get up. I usually get up at 0430 to go for a run or for a workout at the gym. It is imperative for me to maintain my physical fitness regime as this is a long ten-month tour and one has to stay fit and alert to tough it out. However, this morning is a special morning as I´m going flying. I fly approximately every 7 to 10 days. I´m a Griffon pilot, which is the militarized version of the Bell 412 helicopter. Moreover, today marks the six month point of our deployment and an extra 30 minutes of sleep is welcome since I went to bed later than usual, after a "Ramp Ceremony" in honour of another young US Army soldier who lost his life in support of our mission in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, we attend too many of these and as the poppy harvesting season is almost complete, the insurgents are about to get even more active, which is not something any of us is looking forward to, although we´re ready to face the music.

I always look forward to a day of flying but it´s a bit of a drag this morning as I feel more tired than usual. I guess the long tour is starting to wear a bit on me. We had a BBQ last night at the Wing HQ to highlight the 6 month mark. I can see that all my HQ staff are getting tired and are ready to go home. Unfortunately, there are still four months to go before we can reunite with our families. Furthermore, the most difficult part of our mission is about to begin with the temperature starting to rise to the forties and the fighting season about to get going for the summer. That is the main reason why I called a BBQ with my HQ Staff and also invited the Commanding Officers and Squadron Chief Warrant Officers of both Task Force FREEDOM (helicopter squadron) and Task Force EREBUS (Heron UAV Detachment) that are here in Kandahar Airfield under my command. I believe that it is important to take the time to reflect on the accomplishments of the last six months, but more importantly my intent was to pass along the message that we still have four months to go and that complacency is the biggest threat for us out there. The fact that insurgents´ activity is increasing is certainly a threat, but the harsh environmental conditions of Afghanistan are an ever present threat. An already long tour, high temperatures, high density altitude, dry and dusty conditions set ideal conditions for a catastrophic accident waiting to happen. A great advantage is to have battle hardened aircrew that have been flying in these conditions day-in and day-out for at least 7 months. Nevertheless, fatigue and complacency remain the most important threats we are facing when flying out there.

Back in November, when we first arrived here, I was always keen to go flying as flying in a combat environment is the pinnacle of any tactical aviator´s career. It is certainly the pinnacle of my flying career. Although I have flown in exotic places such as Central America, Kosovo, and Bosnia, flying in combat in the Afghanistan theatre of operations is what I have been training for during my whole career. Nevertheless, after 6 months at it, it has lost some of its lustre to say the least. But that´s only me who has flown just over a hundred hours out there so far. The TF FREEDOM´s aircrew are getting close to 400 hrs of flying time in combat, and will get close to 600 hours by the time they are done their tour. I am extremely proud of these guys and gals as they keep Canadian and American soldiers off the roads and have supported multiple deliberate operations, air assaults, and Close Combat Attack overwatch tasks.

Chinook crews show up in theatre with a minimum amount of hours on type. Their flying training is conducted in the USA and the first time they see the Chinook helo they are going to fly is when they show up at the Aviation Battalion in Kandahar. Once in theatre, they go through some desert and night training and off they go in support of my number one priority — keeping soldiers off the road. Indeed, I worry a lot about my aircrew flying in huge dust balls and rolling a helicopter in a fire ball like last year when we lost two airmen and one UK passenger. I also really worry about our Canadian and American soldiers out there. My number one priority is to make sure that no Canadian soldiers take the road during the relief´in´place (RiP) phase when they come in and out of theatre, and also when they transit in and out for leave. It would be tragic to lose soldiers to an IED explosion during their way out of theatre after a full tour in support of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan.

Now, there I am walking on the flight line and it´s 0600. I love coming a bit earlier to enjoy the sun rising on the horizon just above the ramp with all our Chinooks and Griffons quietly lined up in the freshness of the morning. As I´m making my way to my aircraft, I can see the ground crew working on the aircraft on the ramp. This afternoon they will be working in scorching heat. They perform in outstanding fashion in keeping an excellent serviceability rate in a safe fashion in difficult conditions. I remember not too long ago that the sun would not come up before 0700 and the Flight Engineers and Door Gunners would have to fly with winter gear until the day´s sun would be warm enough for them to peel off some stuff. Flying doors off on the Griffon makes for demanding conditions for our guys manning the M134 Gatling guns in the back. Looking further down the ramp I see one of our three CC130 Hercules aircraft parked on the ramp. TF CANUCK is my transport and theatre support squadron. TF CANUCK is my number two priority, although one can argue that my number one and two priorities are interchangeable. It is imperative for me that they maintain the air bridge between Kandahar Airfield and our staging base at Camp Mirage. Unless all three Hercs go unserviceable, which has never happened in my six months in command so far, they never drop a priority mission and they always make sure to take care of all our soldiers as if they were all VIPs. They also support a standing sustainment task with NATO in support of inter—theatre transport support within Afghanistan. Being a tactical aviator and remotely familiar with the transport world, I keep being impressed by their professionalism and dedication to conduct their task. I have recently witnessed the whole unit, including the Commanding Officer, load and unload aircraft in 58 degrees Celsius at Camp Mirage during the RiP´s strategic and tactical flights. TF CANUCK is not only the backbone of the Air Wing, it is also the biggest enabler of our Canadian Task Force in Kandahar.

At 0645 the briefing room is filled with aircrew and the Intelligence Sergeant (Int Sgt) proceeds with his threat briefing for the mission. Today will be two ring routes in support of RiP for US Army and our Canadian Battle Group. Two flights of one Chinook and two Griffon Weapons Team are in escort. The Int Sgt confirms that it is getting nasty in the West Panjwai area and we are to stay out of there if we can. Today´s flights are planned to take place just east of that area, but we´ll keep an eye out for TIC (Troops in Contact) support as required to assist our brothers in arm on the ground.

The normal series of pre-flight briefings continue with a mission brief from the Chinook Mission Commander. Once everyone is clear on the multiple Forward Operations Bases (FOBs) that we will be going to and the tactics and routing that will be flown enroute, we then proceed to the Ops Walk briefing. The Ops Walk briefing is a briefing provided by the squadron operations staff covering ground troops activities, airspace coordination, and any other important points the aircrew should be aware of before flying the mission. Then, the Escort section lead proceeds with his section formation brief. Finally, I walk to the aircraft to proceed with the crew brief before we go flying. As I´m walking towards the ramp, it´s starting to get hot already. I´m happy that I came in early to get my flying kit to the aircraft. All is done and I´m ready to go as I have already signed the aircraft book and all other required paperwork. I can now concentrate on the actual flying of the mission. Once at the aircraft I don my protection equipment and my survival vest. This adds a good 50 to 80 lbs of extra weight on my shoulders, depending on how much ammo I carry. Although I love flying, I know that this long day in the cockpit, squeezed in the very uncomfortable armoured seat will be a test of physical endurance.

The aircraft is started and flight checks are carried-out serviceable and we´re off to the Fuel & Ammunition Replenishing Point (FARP) to top up on fuel before beginning our escort mission. A few minutes later, we´re off "walking the dog" in escort of our Chinook in a back and forth ballet between the FOBs and the FARP at Kandahar Airfield. Kandahar City and the surrounding districts display beautiful and unique landscapes. Indeed, the windscreen is filled with the views of a mix of lunar landscape from the red sand dunes of the Reg Desert to the rugged and sharp looking Ghars (Mountains) standing a few thousand feet tall over the flat Kandahar valley floor. The arid desert landscape is a sharp contrast to the lush green colours of the Arghandab River Valley, where only three weeks ago, the poppy fields were covered with flowers. It is a shame that so much beauty creates such dependency and pain. Nevertheless, every time I fly over Kandahar, I´m always impressed by the people of Afghanistan. They are very resourceful and are true survivors. They have certainly mastered their harsh environment and they are getting the most out of it. Around villages and farms, we can see hundreds of huge holes manually dug into the ground. These holes serve as water wells. Once a well runs dry, they dig another hole beside the original one and so on. We´ve grown accustomed to seeing farmers digging around their fields in an effort at surviving. Herds of sheep and camels are everywhere and we attempt to fly around them to avoid scaring them. Kids are playing and running around, sometimes waving at us, and other times throwing rocks at the helicopters. In the afternoon, we often see groups of men sitting around in the middle of a field. It is very impressive to watch them from up here and I wonder how they can live and survive with such limited resources. When I look at them and think back to the stories my parents were telling me of their youth, I can somewhat relate. Just as the Afghans, my parents did not have electricity in their house and everything was done manually. Some, like the Afghan Cucci nomad tribes, live out of tents and only have what they can carry with their camels and donkeys. Most of them have never seen a shower head with hot water coming out of it. I feel guilty at times when I take the time to think about our livelihood compared to theirs. If only a small portion of what the international community is doing out here can one day truly improve their quality of life to a standard similar to ours, then it would be a huge victory. I hope that all these kids running around will one day get the chance to get an education and then lead their country to success and prosperity.

Now, here we are back at the ramp after having extended our mission twice in support of two emergency aviation mission requests, once again demonstrating one of the main tenants of aviation: "flexibility". It turned out to be a good flying day with a total of 5.2 hours. It often happens that a mission will last up to eight hours plus. Anything past three hours is very demanding as we usually have to fly straight without any shutdown, enjoying short breaks at the FARP while waiting for the Chinook enroute to another destination. Satisfied with our day, we come back with a serviceable Griffon. The Door Gunners had no work to do and that´s the way I like it! It is the main reason why it is so important for me to keep flying our soldiers in and out of FOBs because it is safer to do so than riding the IED infested roads. As I´m on short final I see one of my Heron UAV being towed back after a mission. I make sure I don´t go too close as it is easy to flip them over with the helo downwash. Canada has built us a nice ramp and we´re making good use of it with all of our assets moving around and sharing limited space for combined fixed-wing and helicopter operations. Nevertheless, out of my four previous operational deployments, this is the best Air Force deployed installation I have had the chance to work out of.

As I´m hauling my stuff back to the sea containers where we store our flying kit, I can see the Heron UAV crew walking back from the Ground Control Station after completing their mission. I stop by and chat for a bit. They tell me that they just completed another successful surveillance mission, over 21 hrs in duration. The UAV is definitely an enabler that directly contributes to saving our soldiers' lives out there. The majority of the personnel that are part of that unit come from 14 Wing Greenwood and are mostly part of the Long Range Patrol community. Their Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance experience is invaluable as they keep pushing the limits of the Herons´ operational capability.

Now, that was a full and fun day! I´m sweaty and smell like an old wet dog but I couldn´t be happier. As a Wing Commander, I´m very fortunate to be able to fly as there is nothing like being able to lead from the front and contribute to the fight. Furthermore, it gives me a better understanding of what kind of conditions my airmen and airwomen fly in and what they have to endure to get the job done. I´m happy, but the hundreds of hours flying with night vision goggles have taken a toll on my back and neck and I´m hurting like hell. Oh well! All will be fine tomorrow, but now is the time to get to the office and get through the work that has piled up while I was having fun flying out there. As I´m walking across the flight line back to my HQ, I´m beaming with pride as I realise what great support we are providing, not only to our Canadian soldiers, but also to all Coalition Force soldiers we are supporting throughout NATO. The Canadian Air Force has a great tradition that the Joint Task Force Afghanistan Air Wing airwomen and airmen are upholding with pride and professionalism. I am humbled and proud to have had the chance to contribute to our country´s mission to improve the lives of Afghans while protecting our soldiers.

Colonel Drouin was the Commanding Officer at 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron from May 2006 to Aug 2008. He has also commanded 430 Tactical Helicopter Squadron Valcartier in Bosnia-Herzegovina (2001/2002). He deployed to Kabul (2005/2006), Kosovo (1999/2000), and Central America (1990). He is one of a few Canadian Wing Commanders who have flown in combat in a theatre of war since WWII. He will assume Command of 1 Wing in Kingston, "The Home of Tactical Aviation", upon his return from Afghanistan on 23 Sep 2010.