This is an amazing story from Greg. I served with Greg in Afghanistan. He is an insightful professional airman and always had an upbeat perspective. He was key in maintaining the esprit de corps in our unit and I am proud to know him and share his memoire. You can read his story and see more pictures through this website: http://www.afghanistanacanadianstory.ca
To Greg, I remember this well. The radios were alive about you and 3 Section. I was airborne with Section Two returning from QALAT the same time you were hobbling into FRONTENAC. Operations was very excited. I’m sure the Ops O was kicking shins to get things organized.
Additionally, I remember a few quotes and facial expressions that will be eventually mentioned. Glad you made it through the Devil’s Belly Button. Great read Greg. Thanks. And thanks to the producers of that website. Steve
Bullets Above – Airborne Battle Damage
By Captain Greg Juurlink, Op Athena Roto 8 CHF(A) Griffon Pilot. (October 2009 – August 2010)
Canadian Helicopter Force Afghanistan [CHF(A)] was established at Kandahar Airfield on 6 December 2008, and reached full operational capability in May 2009. The force, equipped with eight CH146B Griffons and six CH147D Chinooks, was activated to provide Canada and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) with enhanced aviation support in southern Afghanistan. A typical Griffon Weapons Team (GWT) was made up of two Griffons modified for operations in Afghanistan and equipped with a combination of M-134 (7.62 mm) mini-guns or GAU-21s (.50 Cal) and an advanced MX-15 optical sensor. GWT’s were employed in reconnaissance, utility transport, and Chinook escort.
The Griffon fleet also flew Close Combat Attack (CCA) missions providing overwatch and fire support for Canadian and Coalition Force troops on the ground. The Chinooks, acquired from the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, were equipped with M-134 mini-guns and M-240 machine guns and were employed in the transport of troops, equipment and supplies as well as air mobile ground assaults. Before standing down in August 2011, the CHF(A) fleet moved 91,608 passengers and 7,111,504 pounds of cargo while logging 23,428 combat hours. CHF(A) was made up primarily of 1 Wing members from 400, 403, 408, 427, 430, & 438 squadrons, and was complimented with personal from all wings and numerous army units from across Canada. Throughout its period of operations, CHF(A) established an enviable record of flexibility and reliability in the full rage of combat aviation
After arriving in Afghanistan in October 2009, I began work as a CH146B Griffon line pilot in 3 Section, made up of 2 GWTs. An ex-Infantry platoon commander from St. Andrews (Antigonish), Nova Scotia, I occupied the First Officer position in the lead aircraft. Our section commander was affectionately known as “Uncle Ron” from Edmonton Alberta, was a seasoned pilot and a veteran of Haiti, Bosnia and a ground tour of Afghanistan in 2007. He had all the answers, was easy to work with and to follow into combat. Our crew also included Alex from Trois-Rivieres, Quebec. An ex-armoured soldier with a previous deployment to Bosnia, Alex turned aircraft mechanic and eventually applied for and became a Flight Engineer (FE) on the Griffon. FE’s are the aircraft systems experts who ensure the helo is good to fly, and can fix it if and when required. They also doubled as door gunners once airborne. Finally Luke, from Emo, Ontario, rounded out our crew. A member of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), he was our left side door gunner and our expert on the aircraft weapons systems.
Our #2 aircraft was commanded by Ottawa native Dwayne, an Ex Navigator turned pilot. From West Vancouver, his First Officer was Christian, a Search and Rescue pilot posted to 417 sqn in Cold Lake; Vic from Sayward (Kelsey Bay), BC, an ex army soldier was the FE and right side door gunner; and, PPCLI Sgt Chris from St. Johns, NL was the left side Door Gunner. 3S4L!
Our Roto was mostly crewed by Edmonton based 408 Squadron but was complimented by numerous augmentees; myself and seasoned instructor pilot “Smitty” from 403 Sqn in Gagetown, NB. Smitty was my mentor, but also someone I joked around with. On Halloween I shaved my beard off, cut my hair short and took a razor to the very top of my head for that extra bald look, so that I could look just like him. I then snuck into his bunk at night and borrowed his velcro name tag. I put his nametag on my flight suit and presto, I was Smitty for Halloween. These lighthearted moments helped distract us from the war during our downtime.
Just shy of a 10-month deployment, I ended up with 103 missions and almost 600 hours flying. You could only get 1 mission per day and it had to be for a combat mission rather than maintenance test flying. We had a number of missions including moving troops around the battlefield supporting special operations forces, and protecting the Chinooks. We were also called upon to support TICs (Troops In Contact) by performing Close Combat Attack (CCA) to end firefights quickly and decisively. We patrolled roads by day and night to find Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) or Taliban fighters setting them up, eliminating the Taliban when required. We also did utility transport, which involved moving a couple soldiers or snipers at a time to strategic locations. What made my job enjoyable was the variety of missions we were called upon to perform.
The mission I’m about to talk about is one I’m sure I’ll never forget. This was the only mission we were unable to complete.
The date was November 24th, 2009. I was gearing up for my 9th combat mission. We arrived at work early that day for planning. The weather was rainy which kept me up at night because I was sleeping in a tent. Our mission was to go to the Dutch FOB of Tarin Kowt to pick up some passengers, then to Nili (Day Kundi), and on to FOB Anaconda to move passengers and cargo. Our role as a GWT was to escort and protect the Chinook. Our route was through a mountain pass, which was not ideal as our altitude was limited by low cloud cover. This prevented us from flying high enough to be out of range from small arms fire. In Afghanistan we were unable to fly in cloud due to the lack of instruments, which allow us to do so as they were removed to reduce weight. Most of the mountains were too high even if we had the equipment.
It was our standard 3 section crewing for that mission, led by our Deputy Commanding Officer (DCO), another experienced aviator. His crew included co-pilot Jon, Door Gunner Edward, and Flight Engineers Hodder and Miguel. As we prepared to launch, our biggest concern was the weather. Rain, reduced visibilities, blowing dust and thunderstorms were forecast. A Satellite (SAT) phone call was made to Nili to confirm the conditions. They were reported as acceptable therefore the decision was made to launch after our intelligence brief given in order to assess, where the biggest threats were located. The plan was to proceed to Tarin Kowt and re-assess. If at any time the weather looked marginal, it was agreed we would turn around and return to base (RTB). Our call sign that day was Shakedown 25 (SD 25) and our number 2 was Shakedown 26 (SD 26). After we started we flew to the FARP or Forward Arming and Refueling Point, to top up our fuel. We then learned that the Chinook, call sign Blowtorch 60 (BT 60) was unable to fly the mission due to a mechanical problem. We returned to the ramp and shutdown while BT 60 changed helicopters. During this delay another weather check was conducted and FOB Nili was dropped off the mission due to deteriorating conditions.
The decision was made to carry out the rest of the mission and the formation departed low level, east of Kandahar city. We test fired our guns and then transitioned above the range of small arms. Once at altitude, Ron started coordinating airspace while other crews did their assigned tasks including navigation and coordinating with our headquarters (HQ).
I was flying at the 7 o’clock position of the Chinook, SD 26 was on the right. I usually fly further to the left of the Chinook but as we were flying up a valley I thought the further away from the mountain on our left, the better. I was looking at the overcast cloud layer, which seemed to be higher. The mountain peak on our left was covered in cloud. The view was beautiful as most views of Afghanistan from the air often were. It was at this time I noticed our Radar Altimeter, which tells us our height above ground, was alive meaning we were in the range of small arms. I then commenced a climb. The Chinook also started climbing as we both realized the valley we were flying up was steadily getting higher and closer to the height we were flying. Classic rising terrain.
Seconds after starting that climb, I heard a very loud bang followed by white smoke in the cockpit coupled with numerous electrical failures. This was my first airborne emergency in the Griffon. Electrical fire was my first thought. At the same time our #2 Generator fell off line causing us to lose our secure comms and the ability to talk to each other due to an enormous amount of static coming through our headsets. As I was acknowledging the helo being on fire and executing the emergency procedure for it, I heard Alex call “BREAK RIGHT, BREAK RIGHT!!” Just then, Luke saw numerous rounds pass about 5-6 feet in front of him on the left just prior to the break. The bullets left contrails behind them due to the moisture in the air and changes in air pressure caused by the passing bullet.
I then began to turn and started heading down to the low level environment to evade the threat. I was flying evasive maneuvers and looking for a place we could safely land and egress a burning helicopter. As I’m turning I felt Ron on the controls. Normally, to transfer controls the Pilot Monitoring (PM) would say “I have control” to which The Pilot Flying (PF) would relinquish control and say “you have control.” This is hard to do and confirm when you can’t talk or hear each other. When this is the case it’s done by the PM grabbing and wiggling the controls. When I broke right and started heading for the ground I felt Ron on the controls, which to me, a new FO, meant he wanted to fly. I then let go of the controls and put my head down in to see our Computer Display Unit (CDU) and started working the radios to clear the static. That’s when I noticed Ron with his head down working the radios as well. Luckily, I was flying with a level of automation engaged so the helicopter was doing exactly what I left it doing when I let go of the controls. After a few seconds with no one flying the helicopter I picked up my head and continued flying. Ron sorted the radios and got a Mayday call out to the formation as I did a systems check to see what our problems were.
Luke and Alex were very busy looking for the enemy position or point of origin where the rounds came from in order to return fire and eliminate the threat. There was still a Chinook and another Griffon who were targets themselves and possibly unaware of the immediate threat so we still had to do our job and protect them. No one at war likes getting shot at. It’s worse and frustrating when you can’t shoot back, especially when you’re armed with M-134 mini guns capable of firing 50 bullets per second and have a few thousand rounds on board. We never did find the enemy or fire a round that day.
After a systems check, I noticed the smoke had stopped and the smell of burning wires was never-present. Still not sure where the smoke was from, I was sure we were no longer on fire. I figured it out later that we were never on fire at all. I was once told that every time we would send a helicopter back to Canada for a full inspection on a maintenance rotation (we had 12 Griffons allocated for Afghanistan, 8 on the line and 4 being rotated for full inspections back in Canada), it would come back 300 pounds lighter from removing the dust that would accumulate in them. Anyone who’s been to Afghanistan knows the dust I’m talking about, that fine, white, flour like dust which interestingly enough, looks just like electrical fire smoke when stirred up by a bullet entering an air data computer in a Griffon helicopter.
At this time, Ron had fixed the radios and was communicating with our formation. The Chinook went high level to avoid the threat while our section team mates SD 26 got on our 6 O’Clock to protect our decent and egress. Before we arrived at the spot I chose to land we decided as a crew to carry on low level to a Forward Operating Base (FOB) 19 km away hoping the helicopter would make it. Our other option was to land, which would most likely lead to the loss of the aircraft or even worse, to a fire fight on the ground with the Taliban. That’s nothing a 4-man helicopter crew ever wants to do. The Taliban always seemed to appear out of thin air, even in the middle of the desert sometimes.
The main concern now, was if we had taken rounds in the tail rotor.
If it had, the rotor could come off anytime. The Griffon was designed for delivering oil workers to off shore oil platforms, not combat. If the tail had come off it’s unlikely I’d be writing this today. We lost a Griffon in July of 2002 in Labrador due to a loss of its tail rotor. 2 Pilots were killed and this was definitely on my mind. The aircraft felt fine, so we pressed on. This was the worst part of the whole event. Everything else happened so quickly there was no time to think about it, only react. Now that we were low level away from the threat we had time to think about all the problems we might have like tail rotor, hydraulics, fuel, and so on. We considered pretty much any problem we could have. To make it worse, we could only do a limited Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) while airborne, so we were unsure the extent of the problems. After about 10 minutes we arrived at the FOB. I’ve never been so happy to see one in my life.
After shut down SD26 and BT60 landed to assist us. We did a battle damage inspection and found damage to a main rotor blade where a bullet had passed through it and a bullet into the air data computer, inches from my left leg. We then stripped our guns and equipment off the helo and loaded it on the Chinook. As the crew did this I went to the Operations centre of the FOB and talked to the Officer In Charge (OIC). I told him we had a helicopter full of bullets on his HLS. He then asked me if we wanted “a download” which means to take all the ammo off the helicopter. This procedure is common for attack helicopters. I then had to explain to him they were “bad guy bullets” and the helicopter had to be left there until a team of maintainers could come out to fix it.
We then got on the Chinook for the long ride home. It felt like a ride of shame as we left our helicopter (CH146458) in the FOB and had to rely on our Chinook brothers to take us home. Since we began Helicopter Ops in Afghanistan we always had friendly banter between Chinook and Griffon crews on which job was better and more important. The Chinook role was more important in the end. They moved so many troops and supplies and could be escorted by other Attack helicopters. The problem was that there simply weren’t enough attack helicopters in theatre. Enter the Griffon. With that said I would rather fly the Griffon there any day. It’s better to be a shooter than a target in my mind. At the end of the day we’re all one team, but we did take a bit of a ribbing that day. I did get my first ride on a Chinook, one of the most prolific combat helicopters ever built. Our Chinooks ended up moving over 91,000 troops and 7 million pounds of cargo in it’s 3 year deployment. In fact, no other country’s stats even came close to what Canada was moving. I spent numerous days flying over 8 hours. My max was a 10.2 hour mission in which the Chinook we were escorting flew a 10.7. We had 0.5 less because we had to shut down in Helmand province for fuel while the Chinook took their fuel while running. To put it in perspective, I fly about 2.5 hours a day in Canada. We got a letter from an Army commander thanking us for our support as his whole deployment from start to finish was moved to and from the FOB’s they operated from by helicopter. We were proud of this accomplishment as 80% of casualties were from IEDs. Moving by helicopter was much safer than moving by road.
The Chinook is built for battle. In fact, the very Chinook we flew home on and were escorting that day also took a round in an empty fuel tank. The crew heard a thud but thought an ammo can fell over. The bullet entered the fuel tank and ignited the fumes causing an explosion that buckled the airframe causing major damage. The machine is so tough the crew couldn’t even tell until they shut down back at Kandahar Air Field. The Chinook required major repairs and was out of the fight for weeks.
As for the Griffon we were flying, we sent a crew to FOB Frontenac, north of Kandahar, to patch it up to get it back to KAF. They did a full inspection that showed 50 wires were damaged and 30 were cut clean off. They replaced a blade and had to jerry-rig some wires to “hot wire” the number 2 engine starter to fly it home. It took a week to get it home. It then took another 6 weeks to re-wire the whole helo to get it back in the fight. CH146458 is currently flying at my home unit 403 Squadron in Gagetown, NB where I teach new pilots how to fly the same machine I fought with in Afghanistan. It’s a nice full circle.
An intelligence update after our mission showed that 2 Chinooks were shot down in the same location in 2007. 2 weeks after our mission, a Dutch Cougar helicopter received extensive damage in the same location and did pretty much what we did recovering in FOB Frontenac. The damage was so excessive a MI-26 had to sling the helicopter back to KAF. Their Hydraulics failed in a 4-foot hover.
The FE on the Chinook had a helmet camera on the tail of the Chinook when we got shot. It’s amazing the amount of bullets fired at the Chinook and us that day from and enemy machine gun. You can hear each one in the video. We were very lucky we only took a few rounds and got away. Throughout the tour I saw many videos in which you could hear bullets flying by. It’s hard to say how often we got shot at. Between videos and ground force reports it seemed pretty regularly. Luckily, I never got hit again.
The men and women of CHF(A) were top notch and I wouldn’t want to go to war with anyone else except possibly the men and women who were on the ground. We all have countless stories of seeing our ground forces take it to the enemy fighting through great adversity. As combat aviators it was our job to be there for them. I have many stories in which we reacted to the enemy engaging friendly forces. Each time we were able to intervene and provide fire support from above to end fire fights. All too often we were called to provide assistance to ground forces after IED attacks and had to bear witness to the destruction the Taliban were capable of. Our mission was very intense, seeing 21 of our fellow soldiers fall in combat. It was tough to deal with and underlined the importance of minimizing the threat to our troops by moving them by air. Occasionally, we also got to patrol the roads at night looking for IED’s or Taliban placing them helping ensure the roads were safe in the morning by either advising ground troops of the IED location or by eliminating the threat ourselves. I doubt I will ever do anything nearly as rewarding again in my life.
Thanks again for this Greg. For Freedom. Go For Shakedown.