RAF News

Joint Helicopter Support Squadron on Operation Newcombe Mali: A personal View

Personnel with rifles walk towards Chinook.

The Joint Helicopter Support Squadron has a Mobile Air Operations Team deployed in Mali, made up of five British Army and RAF personnel, as a vital part of the Chinook detachment providing a heavy lift capability to the French counterinsurgency operation.

Corporal Kieron Lace has recently returned from Mali, where he led the Heli-Handling Team as part of the Joint Helicopter Support Squadron detachment and shares a personal view of the work of the small team he was a part of. 

“I signed up because I wanted to travel since joining the RAF in 2009 I have deployed all around the world from the jungles of Belize to Eastern Europe.  This isn’t his first time deploying out to Africa either."

Corporal Lace
Joint Helicopter Support Squadron Leader

Personnel with hooks as Chinook hovers ahead and stirs up sand.

The support of the Chinook force is an important part of the French operation.  Their missions cover a range of tasks from large-scale troop moves, VIP transport and under-slinging armoured fighting vehicles.

Daytime temperatures regularly reach 45°C in Gao where the detachment is based.  Thinking back to his first impressions of Mali, Corporal Lace reflected: “the first thing that hits you as you step off the aircraft is the heat.  It’s something that you have to acclimatise to quite quickly, it never seems to go away."

Personnel stands cross armed with Chinook.

Supervising the team that builds and hooks up underslung loads for the Chinooks forms a significant part of Corporal Lace’s role.  The conditions in Mali create their own additional challenges.

Personnel attach hooks to Chinook, as it hovers ahead and stirs up sand.

Standing in the underslung load area, designated ROMEO, the Joint Helicopter Support Squadron personnel can see the aircraft start up by its hangar. “We’ll see the blades turning and then watch it taxi out.  The crew will finish their checks and fly over to the pick-up area, stopping short hovering about 40m out.  You can see a wall of sand, then as they’re ready to come into our location the wall of sand creeps towards you until you are engulfed by it."

“As the wall of red dust envelops you everything changes colour, chunks of gravel are picked up by the downwash and sent hurtling into the distance.  Even with hearing protection the deep distinctive ‘Wokka, Wokka’ of the rotors is all encompassing, felt in your chest as much as it is heard.

Corporal Lace
Joint Helicopter Support Squadron Leader

Chinook carries underslung load above personnel on ground.

It is vital to wear the correct personal protective equipment as it is can be a hazardous and uncomfortable operating zone directly underneath the Chinook. “The Chinook will come down to about 6 or 7 feet, then we’ll hook up and move carefully out of the way. No matter the environment static electricity building up on the airframe is a real danger. In this extremely dusty environment it is amplified. One member of the team has the vital task of earthing the airframe whilst the other hooks on the load.  Often you can physically see the spark, sometimes a couple of inches long."

“Along with the gravel comes the dust.  Fine particles that seem to cover everything, turning all it touches a shade of orange. It’s hard to describe, but it’s so fine it gets into your eyes, your nose, you breath it, eat it. Imagine working in orange talcum powder.”

Corporal Lace
Joint Helicopter Support Squadron Leader

As Corporal Lace backs away from the airframe, the aircrew wait for his signal that the load is safe before moving away. 

Alongside loading the aircraft Corporal Lace and his team also manages the loading of French personnel being sent to Forward Operating Bases and desert locations around Mali.  During a busy period, Corporal Lace said: “Pax wise it’s the most I’ve ever moved by Chinook, three days of five flights a day is unheard of in the UK."

Personnel attach hooks to Chinook, as it hovers ahead and stirs up sand.

Responsible for running the Heli-Handling Team, means that Corporal Lace regards team cohesion as a top priority, “It’s been a big one for me, we’re obviously of mixed ages and genders, the living conditions are pretty basic, so we’ve got to get on.  

"I’m proud of my small team, they’re operating to a larger team’s standard, able to complete any task that comes our way."

Corporal Lace
Joint Helicopter Support Squadron Leader

The Mobile Air Operations Team detachment from the Joint Helicopter Support Squadron fill a vital role in the operation.  Specialising in supporting the Chinooks they are the experts who build the underslung loads as well as ensuring the safe movement of freight and personnel.

The support of the Chinook force is an important part of the French operation. Their missions cover a range of tasks from large-scale troop moves, VIP transport and under-slinging armoured fighting vehicles.

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