British military Joint Helicopter Command sustain airpower operation in Mali
The British military Tri-Service Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) is leading the UK’s support to the French Counter Insurgency Operations in West Africa by conducting heavy lift helicopter operations.
The deployment of Royal Air Force CH 47 Chinooks began in 2018 and it has been JHC that has sustained this operation for two years now by providing the enabling personnel, together with the planning needed to ensure the operations continue.
JHC planners have recently led the work to ensure that equipment, including a Chinook could be rotated to allow long term maintenance. The complicated planning ensured a RAF C-17 Globemaster from RAF Brize Norton based 99 Squadron to be able to conduct the changeover of Chinook air frames successfully.
JHC personnel are also deployed in Mali at Gao Air base, to support 1310 Flight which is currently from C Flight 18 (B) Squadron RAF and their supporting ground crew. One of the JHC units that is supporting the operation is the Tactical Supply Wing (TSW).
The four strong TSW detachment is a key enabling element for the deployment as they carry out the fuelling of helicopters and other aircraft as needed. To do this they also have to be able to maintain the equipment and conduct fuels quality assurance testing prior to any refuel to ensure that the fuel is fit for use.
The detachment is equipped with a very large Oshkosh Tactical Aircraft Refueller tanker that can hold 15,000 litres of fuel. All of the detachment are qualified to operate the Oshkosh pumping compartment or to be on the hose end of refuels, connecting the hose to the aircraft and conducting the refuel.
The fuel that is used is drawn from the main French fuel depot based at the airfield and then the detachment blend in additives that brings the fuel to UK military grade specifications.
Corporal Russ Purcell, the TSW detachment commander said: “It is very satisfying to be able to put all of our training into practice in such a challenging situation and to see that our skills contribute to the successful completion of the various missions we are supporting.”
As the operation has developed the small TSW team’s role has increased. This means they are now routinely able to refuel the RAF C-17 and Atlas A400M’s that provide the logistical airbridge that sustains the operation. Additionally, however the TSW detachment has increasingly taken the lead in introducing specialist refuelling activities for all of the helicopters currently based at Gao, including the Danish Merlins and the French Tiger helicopters as well at the RAF Chinooks.
The programme of interoperability training has introduced rotors turning refuels. This means the helicopter is refuelled without the engines being shut down and the rotors are still turning. This refuelling procedure is a specialist activity that requires additional training and is an activity the UK military refuellers from the RAF and Army Air Corps specialise in.
Following this training the TSW personnel have been using their unique expertise to support UK, Danish and French flying operations both on base and out on the ground. The RAF Chinooks can deploy with additional fuel to allow refuelling away from the airbase and so extend the range of operations of French and Danish helicopters.
Lieutenant Colonel Steve Brining, the UK’s National Component Commander and senior officer in Mali said: “The role of JHC has been critical to the success of the UK’s helicopter operations in the African Sahel region. The enablers that are deployed provide the critical mission support that is needed to conduct these operations successfully together with the support we receive from the Joint Helicopter Command Headquarters back in the UK.”