Wrapping up Op Presence-Mali
Sep 30, 2019

After more than a year of operations, the Canadian Armed Forces air task force (ATF) involved in Operation Presence-Mali has almost completed its mission. All that’s left is to ship eight helicopters and other sensitive materiel safely home.

Sept 2019 – Members of Operation Presence-Mali load three CH-146 Griffon helicopters into a CC-177 Globemaster for their next deployment at Camp Castor near Gao. (Photo: Cpl Richard Lessard)

Key elements of Canada’s support for the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) included aeromedical evacuation and transport capabilities as part of the pushback against an insurgency plaguing the country since 2012.

The AFT deployment became fully operational in August 2018, with 250 CAF personnel and three Boeing CH-47 Chinooks and five Bell CH-146 Griffon armed escorts based at Camp Castor near Gao.

During the overall deployment, which ended Aug. 31, Canadian aircrews and medical staff, supported by infantry, conducted 11 medical evacuations and more than 100 transport missions. By the time the transport role ended July 31, Royal Canadian Air Force crews had logged more than 4,000 flight hours, carrying 2,800 passengers and 168 tonnes of cargo.

Just as the ATF wound down, FrontLine spoke with the Task Force Commander, Col Travis Morehen – a veteran Griffon pilot and now Commander of  1 Wing in Kingston. In Mali since last January. He was preparing to hand over to LCol David Charron, a logistics officer from 3 Canadian Support Unit in Montreal, who would ensure that all equipment was returned to Canada.

“We started with 250 personnel in Gao and we’re down to 137,” Morehen said. “Initially we had two main lines of operation. The first was the medical evacuation with the Chinooks and Griffons on 24/7 standby with a team of four medical professionals in the back supported by four light infantry. Our second line of effort was the utility operations to transport of personnel and equipment.”

While his teams focused exclusively on medevac missions in the final month, the utility role was handled by the civilian UN “white fleet” with their signature paint jobs. “They were doing complementary missions before,” Morehen explained. “Now they’re just doing more.”
As for medevac missions, a Romanian Air Force helicopter detachment was picking up where Canada left off. Four RCAF Boeing CC-177 Globemaster IIIs helped with the Romanians’ in-theatre deployment and a small Canadian transition team helped them to prepare for operational challenges.

Feb 2019 – Major-General Christian Drouin, Commander 1 Canadian Air Division (centre), and Colonel Morehen, Task Force Commander (right), speak with a Dutch military member during Operation Presence-Mali. (Photo: Cpl François Charest, 430 Tac Hel Sqn)

Daytime average temperatures almost never go below 30°C in the shade. They rise steadily through spring, peak in the low 40s in May-June before the rainy season, but tend to remain in the high 30s through to at least November.

Then there were the Haboobs, kilometre-high sandstorms caused by air convection in thunderstorms and usually fronted by a rapid downrush of air. “We’ve had as little as 15 minutes warning,” Morehen said.

His predecessor, Col Chris McKenna (now RCAF Director of Air Plans), was nearly caught in a Haboob but his crew saw it coming and land in time. “That’s the only approach you can take: land, keep the rotors turning and wait until it passes,” Morehen said. Particle separators protect the engines.

But sand and dust don’t mean all operations stopped. “Here at Camp Castor, we have a FATO (Final Approach and Takeoff Area), a small runway for helicopters, so the Griffons are able to take off in ground effect and land in ground effect.” Things were more challenging at forward operating bases where high protective barriers required a two-stage hovering approach to landing. “At that point, we needed to decrease our fuel loads to make sure we have adequate performance margins,” Morehen said. “That limited our range to those bases.”

The bigger Chinooks actually were easier in those conditions. Their four-axis autopilots – adding auto-hover to roll, pitch and yaw controls – enabled pilots to hover automatically at 50 feet, minimizing the dangerous buildup of dust and sand.

May 2019 – Une équipe médicale participe à un exercice d’évacuation sanitaire aérienne dans le cadre de l’Opération Presence – Mali. (Photo: Cpl François Charest, 430 Sqn)

CAF interaction with their German and Dutch MINUSMA allies was “seamless” from mission planning to execution. Operations with Dutch mostly involved insertion and retrieval of Long-Range Reconnais­sance Patrol teams of light infantry and vehicles but that ended in May, leaving Canadians working mainly with German intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance personnel.

While the environment was undeniably an issue, Morehen said his greatest personnel challenge was “the visioning, looking at 30-60 days down the road, anticipating the change in operations we’d need to do.”

Logistics, however, were a day-to-day thing. “We’re 7,000-8,000 kilometres away from spare parts, so the ability to bring those parts to Gao is extremely important. We deployed with a very robust backup kit for the Chinooks,” he said, explaining that the technicians from 430 Squadron were able to do all the major inspections in-theatre. “It’s a phenomenal serviceability rate of over 95 percent.”

While most Chinook spares remain Boeing’s property until they cross the parts counter at 430 Tactical Helicopter Sqn’s base in Petawawa, there are allowances in the contract for contingency response kits. “We’ve had entire engine and transmissions here which allowed us to do those changes in-theatre. Otherwise, it’s a fairly long logistical chain to get here.”

Based on experience gained during the combat mission in Afghanistan, RCAF crews know the Chinooks’ vulnerabilities in an environment with a lot of abrasive sand blowing around. “Rotor blades, windscreens and electronics were going to be high-demand items – but there are always a few we didn’t expect,” Morehen noted. Despite a few unexpected issues, the crews never missed a medevac flight.

Aug 2019 – Members of Op Presence-Mali conduct their eleventh aeromedical evacuation mission, treating two civilian contractors involved in an IED attack before transferring the casualties to a MINUSMA Role 2 hospital in Gao, near Camp Castor. (Photo: Corporal Richard Lessard)

The Griffons, on ramp standby in mid-40°C temperatures, also had electronics issues. “We have windscreen covers on, but due to having to get airborne within 30 minutes, the doors are off,” he explained.

Proven in Afghanistan, the Chinook-Griffon package works well, and the mission profile evolved with doctors and infantry working as a team – a practice Morehen looks forward to institutionalizing. “The teamwork of our sailors, soldiers and aviators amplified the Canadian professional military capability. It’s been good work, something we’re proud of.”

The CAF began its gradual departure from Mali on 31 July 2019, and the full repatriation of all ATF equipment is expected to be completed no later than January 2020.

Ken Pole is a contributing editor for FrontLine Magazine.