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When people are posted to 430 Tactical Helicopter Squadron in Valcartier, Que., they almost never want to leave. That’s because the squadron, one of just two French-speaking units in Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) tactical aviation, draws many of its members from within the province of Quebec. To them, it’s home.
And as everyone knows, it’s pretty unusual for military members to be posted close to home.
“It tends to be a very cohesive, very tight unit,” said LCol Mike Babin, commanding officer of 430 Squadron. “They are from there; they never want to leave. It is common to find people who have served a total of 15 or 20 years there, which is quite rare.”
Babin himself is a good example. Originally from Val d’Or, he is currently serving his third posting at the Valcartier squadron.
But language aside, there is another factor that helps set 430 Squadron apart, and that is the strength of its Reserve force.
“It tends to be healthy; we keep our Reservists for a long time for the same reason, which is they don’t want to move,” Babin commented. “Some are even putting in exemption requests to serve beyond the mandatory retirement age [of 60].”
Currently, of the squadron’s roughly 53 pilot positions, seven are staffed by Reservists.
Under the umbrella of 1 Wing Kingston, which administers tactical aviation, 430 Squadron includes about 290 personnel and flies the CH-146 Griffon helicopter. Generally, said Babin, the squadron is assigned around 15 aircraft, although numbers vary.
“Our job is to support the Army. The operational tempo of the squadron is very high. We are constantly deployed somewhere as a unit or with smaller detachments.”
Last year, 430 Squadron was sent to Northern Iraq for Operation Impact. In January 2019, the squadron was also deployed to Mali for Operation Presence, where the Canadian contingent is expected to be based until the end of August.
In 2018, 430 Squadron celebrated its 75th anniversary.
The year included several milestone moments, including a parade through the streets of Quebec City on Sept. 14, 2018, when the traditional Freedom of the City ceremony was held at City Hall. The following day, almost 450 people attended the squadron’s 75th anniversary ball at Hôtel Le Concorde.
A specially painted Griffon with a falcon on the side – representing the gyrfalcon from the squadron’s emblem – made numerous appearances during the year, including at the 2018 Royal International Air Tattoo in the U.K.
And, after more than two years of research and writing, Canadian aviation author Marc-André Valiquette released a book, Swiftly & Surely: 430 Silver Falcon Squadron History, which celebrates the unit in both words and photos.
Formed on Jan. 1, 1943 as an army co-operation squadron in England during the Second World War, 430 Squadron was re-designated the following June as 430 Fighter Reconnaissance Squadron.
From 1943 to 1945, it flew P-40 Tomahawk, P-51 Mustang I, and Spitfire XIV aircraft. In 1944, its members participated in the preparations for the Allied invasion of Normandy by flying photo reconnaissance missions and by supporting the 2nd British Army on D-Day.
Disbanded in Germany in 1945 following the war, 430 Squadron was reactivated in North Bay, Ont., in 1951. Equipped with F-86 Sabre aircraft, the unit was sent overseas to France and remained there until disbanded on June 1, 1963.
Two months later, it was reactivated as 430 Strike/Attack Squadron and flew CF-104 Starfighters in Germany until 1970, when it was disbanded for the third time.
On Jan. 1, 1971, the squadron was permanently reactivated as 430 Tactical Helicopter Squadron in Valcartier. Its members flew the CH-135 Twin Huey and CH-136 Kiowa helicopters until 1995, when the squadron obtained its current fleet of CH-146 Griffon helicopters.
A busy squadron
Since he returned to 430 Squadron as its commanding officer almost two years ago, Babin said the operational tempo has been very high.
“I have never seen the whole squadron together since I’ve arrived,” he said. “People are constantly deployed.”
In addition to the overseas deployments in Iraq and Mali, 430 Squadron has been busy at home, too.
Most recently, it deployed two helicopters this past March to assist in the recovery of an RCAF CC-138 Twin Otter belonging to 440 Squadron, which was damaged during a hard landing on sea ice north of Inuvik.
Then, during spring flooding in Ontario, two 430 Squadron Griffons flew to Borden, Ont., to support Canadian Army relief efforts.
Babin said the squadron is on constant standby for regional response if required.
“We are certainly busy, in the sense that you either just came back from deployment, you are deployed, or you are about to go,” said Babin. “Nobody at 430 can say they don’t feel the operational tempo. This squadron has been running on a small percentage of its manning. But the tempo is good, it’s healthy. I wouldn’t say we are overstretched – but we are certainly at capacity. Morale is good, and people are happy.”
A high operational tempo could pose challenges when combined with the current personnel shortages being experienced within the Canadian Armed Forces. But Babin said 430 Squadron is lucky to be somewhat of an anomaly.
“We are affected a bit differently from other squadrons in terms of geographic location and pilot demographics,” he explained. “At 430 Squadron specifically, we’ve been faring pretty good. One of the reasons is we’re in a geographic location that is attractive. They tend to be happy here. However, we have seen our Reserve force declining slowly.”
Babin also noted the Air Force is working to combat the overall labour shortage on several different levels.
“It will come around and stabilize. We just have to figure out many solutions – not one silver bullet. We will have to be creative and figure out what works.”
Presence in Mali
In March 2018, the Canadian government announced it would deploy an air task force to support the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).
Originally slated to be a 12-month mission, Operation Presence includes an aviation battalion of about 190 personnel tasked with providing around-the-clock air medical evacuation capability in support of UN ground forces. Its secondary function is to fly utility missions that move troops, equipment and supplies as needed.
The battalion fleet includes five CH-146 Griffons and three CH-147F Chinooks. While a Chinook conducts a medical evacuation, two Griffons fly alongside as armed escorts, ensuring “section integrity.”
Babin – who spoke to RCAF Today from Mali, where he is commanding officer of the Op Presence aviation battalion – said 430 Squadron makes up about half of the aviation unit, which also includes members from 450 Squadron in Petawawa, Ont., where the Chinooks are based. The unit is further augmented by members who hail from a variety of supporting units across the Canadian Armed Forces.
Collectively, their function is critical to the UN efforts in Mali.
“We’re the only military medevac capability in this mission,” explained Babin. “There are over 13,000 troops in Mali for MINUSMA right now, from over 50 countries. There are civilian operators providing varying levels of medical evac, but we are the only military provider in this theatre.
“When it comes to risky, high-threat missions to evacuate soldiers on the battlefield, we are the only ones with the capability to do it here.”
The Canadians’ presence in theatre allows ground troops – mostly Dutch, until their departure in May, and now German – to extend their range of ground operations, knowing they are backed by a medical evacuation team that will respond within a prescribed timeline.
“Typically, most European nations calculate their [mission] range based on their ability to support medical capability to their troops,” continued Babin. “By ground, that is slow. So, the range isn’t that far. Before we showed up, they operated in close range to Gao and often deployed a medical team with the troops. After we arrived, they could send soldiers on foot patrols in towns that had never seen a UN soldier before.”
Canada’s Chinook and Griffon helicopters replaced a German air medical evacuation team that flew different types of aircraft, although none as big as the Chinook.
In preparation for Mali, the RCAF added a weapons kit, sensor cameras, aircraft survival equipment, and countermeasures systems to each Griffon. A weight reduction program saw the removal of certain components, including floor coverings and most of the IFR avionics, allowing the aircraft to eke out some extra power.
The Canadians face many challenges in Mali, foremost among them the climate. With average daytime temperatures of 44 C, the aircraft are constantly working at their operating limits.
“The Chinook is famous for its ability to operate in extreme environments, but even it is meeting a challenge here,” said Babin. “There is no aircraft that is not affected by the heat.”
Impressively, as of June 14, the air task force hadn’t missed a launch due to aircraft serviceability issues. The Griffon fleet had clocked a 93 per cent serviceability rate since January, with the Chinook at 96 per cent. Maintenance is performed around the clock.
In addition to the climate, Mali’s sheer size – coupled with a dearth of refuelling stations and other aviation assets – means the challenge of figuring out how to complete a 700-kilometre round trip medevac mission is significant. In many cases, crews have just minutes to perform a casualty extraction. They compare Mali to Canada’s Arctic region: barren, with a hostile climate and few signs of humanity.
In June, Mali’s rainy season was looming. Weather was becoming unpredictable, and weather stations are practically non-existent.
Capt Ryan Kelly, an aircraft commander and Griffon section commander from 430 Squadron, said one of the biggest threats is the dreaded haboob – a fierce dust storm that can whip up a wall of sand more than 6,000 feet high.
“When a haboob is happening, you have to be prepared for it to go down to zero zero weather,” he told RCAF Today. “Weather reporting here is unstable. A lot of times we just have to take off and see if we can help, if the risk assessment warrants it.”
Crews must be prepared to make tough decisions. This might mean trying to maintain a lower fuel consumption rate, or landing and idling in a low population area, waiting for the haboob to pass. As Kelly pointed out, landing in the Saharan desert poses its own set of risks inherent with the degraded visual environment.
Since arriving in January, Kelly has flown 150 hours, or about 30 hours per month. He’s participated in three medevacs so far.
“All three have been quite different. The first one we did was within a week of my arrival in Mali. It involved an improvised explosive device on a main supply road. Sri Lankans were performing a convoy transport and got injured and so we launched.”
Kelly said the target was more than 150 nautical miles away, so the team couldn’t recover directly to Gao.
“We had to co-ordinate where we would recover and get fuel. On that one, we got close to the point of incident, and contacted ground troops who had secured the area. We sent the Chinook in – we had only five minutes of play time, they got in quickly and extracted the injured troops. Just in the nick of time, we had to recover to an FOB (forward operating base) to get fuel. Luckily, weather wasn’t an issue.”
Encased in heavy protective equipment and battling the stifling heat, air task force crews will often consume three litres of water during a flight.
“You come back drenched and still dehydrated,” said Kelly. “Somehow your body adapts to it.”
Closing off the mission
Canada’s forward aeromedical role in Mali will be assumed by Romania later this year.
Babin said the first troops are expected to arrive in mid-July to begin building the Romanian camp, which should be operational by Oct. 15.
In the meantime, Canada will begin to initiate a gradual departure at the end of July, with medevac capability maintained until the end of August. Logistics personnel will pack up the camp, with the last pair of Canadian boots expected to leave Mali later this fall, according to Babin.
To fill the gap, the commanding officer expects the UN may rely on contracted civilian medevac operators. “There are some good and capable companies here.”
As for 430 Squadron, Babin said the priority is to prepare yet another detachment for future deployment.
“We don’t know where yet. So, we start with very generic training, then collective training with the Army, and then mission-specific training. If we don’t know our destination, we are on what we call ‘high readiness.’ Every year, we start that cycle again.”
He looks forward to fall, when he expects the whole squadron to be together for the first time in a long while.
“The challenge then will be to reconnect everyone into one big family.”
In the meantime, hardships continue to be commonplace in Mali. It’s an extremely demanding theatre that challenges the endurance of both people and aircraft. But none of that obscures the satisfaction taken in a job well done.
“I am here with a great bunch of people who are extremely motivated and proud to be doing the job we are doing,” concluded Kelly. “But that doesn’t change the fact that it is very challenging.”
— with historical files from Capt Christian Déry of 430 Tactical Helicopter Squadron