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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Pacrim Notebook: Busy Abroad and at Home

Barney O’Shea

Australia has again bid farewell to a detachment of Boeing CH-47 Chinook troops for a deployment to support NATO operations in Afghanistan.

The aviators, loadmasters and technicians from C Sqdn., 5th Aviation Regiment, based in Townsville, Queensland, left in early February to join an advance party and their two Chinooks in the southern Afghanistan province of Kandahar.

The squadron will transport coalition troops, lift heavy equipment and supplies, and perform medical evacuation. It is redeploying under a rotational commitment; this is the second time Australian CH-47s have deployed to Afghanistan during Operation Slipper. The aircraft have undergone upgrades and deep maintenance since the last rotation ended a year ago. This includes engine upgrades, enhanced ballistic protection, and advanced communications equipment.

This is a far different deployment than last year’s. The teams from C Sqdn. are fully experienced and trained. The strength of the Australian Army Aviation Corps is its professionalism in all skills and all ranks.

The squadron is going back with upgraded T55-L-714 engines that have been installed since early 2007 and so are well run in to produce about 25 percent power while burning less fuel and achieving higher reliability. The extra power, along with the upgraded communications and electronic self-defense systems, will be put to full use with improved ballistic protection for the helicopters, crews, and passengers.

The performance of C Sqdn. in Afghanistan in 2007 won the team an enviable reputation for a "can-do" attitude. As the squadron commander said, "If it meant we hang around a bit longer or take a bit more, as long as we could, we would." C Sqdn. is one of the few Chinook units with the Dillon Aero M134D minigun. "It’s like using a big hose," one of the gunners said. "I would hate to be on the receiving end."

The crews are impressed particularly with the gun’s ability to use all the ammunition one gives it. One worry was that once the gun started, it would go through a 4,000-round bin "in next to nothing."

The squadron has been training in the rainy season in Queensland, which can be compared to the extreme weather conditions of Afghanistan in many ways. The crews are looking forward to showing off their new steeds and back up their hard training and previous experience. During the last rotation, the unit was known for always having one Chinook available, and when a sudden call came through, both Chinooks often flew.

Meanwhile, the 5th Aviation Regiment’s B Sqdn. has kept its end up, maintaining a Sikorsky Aircraft Black Hawk detachment in East Timor. Its rotation will be the fifth of seven on Operation Astute, the Australian Defence Force’s support of Australia’s response to East Timor’s request for assistance in restoring peace and stability to the country. Australian troops there are supporting Australian efforts and those of the United Nations.

The New Zealand Defence Force is working alongside Australia’s forces on this mission. Together, their personnel form the International Stabilization Force in East Timor. Police from Australia and 20 other nations form the United Nations Police Force there, which the International Stabilization Force also supports.

Nothing is taken for granted in this operation. The continuous, intense training prior to change over to the new detachment included a mountain flying session in Papua New Guinea, flying in the severe rainy season and the terrain there to help the Black Hawk teams to get accommodated to operating in mountainous jungle country with the bad weather of the tropics.

Few are aware that 1 Aviation Regiment, while working hard to master the new Eurocopter Tigers and setting up a new base in Darwin, is at the same time providing Bell Helicopter Kiowas for the light helicopter roles with the East Timor multi-national task force. The New Zealand forces in East Timor maintain several Bell Iroquois, which like all helicopters there are kept working all the time and have won a reputation for their high professional capability.

A lot happened at the end of 2007 and Australian Army Aviation Corps has been flat out. In maintaining operations in recent years (Bougainville, East Timor, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami response, and the odd natural disaster thrown in, the majority of the corps have gained great operational experience. Many wear their operational medals so one can see how Army Aviation has been working internationally and at home.

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