Chinook retrieves damaged Griffon from remote training area

A Royal Canadian Air Force CH-147F Chinook helicopter and crew recently undertook a most unusual mission – slinging and transporting an RCAF CH-146 Griffon helicopter.

In mid-December 2018, the Griffon sustained moderate damage when a main rotor blade struck a communication tower while flying in the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range (CLAWR) at 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta. No-one was hurt, but the helicopter’s blade and transmission were damaged and it could not be flown back to base.

The CLAWR is a vast tract of land, covering an area of 1.17 million hectares and straddling the Alberta/Saskatchewan provincial border. Several options for recovering the Griffon, which is from 417 Combat Support Squadron in Cold Lake, were considered. Given the remoteness of the Griffon’s location—75 kilometres from 4 Wing—the decision was made to call upon 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, located in Petawawa, Ontario, to do the job with one of its medium- to heavy-lift Chinooks.

As well as bringing the damaged Griffon home, the mission would also prove that the Chinook was capable of carrying out such a task—the squadron had not done anything like this since it was re-established in 2013.

It might sound like a relatively simple job, but many factors—from effect of cross-winds, how best to rig the Griffon under the Chinook, calculating the weight and balance of the Griffon so both the Chinook and its unusual “cargo” would fly straight and level and remain stable—had to be considered.

Careful planning was the name of the game.

Slinging and rigging equipment was tested and approved at 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, located in Edmonton, before the day of the lift arrived. “We took a deliberate approach to ensure the safest procedures were applied in all aspects. Nothing was rushed,” explained Major Martin Bergeron, a Chinook pilot from 450 Squadron who was aviation mission commander for the task. “All the worst-case scenarios were discussed, along with actions to be taken.

“Our direction from higher headquarters was ‘You can only do it once, so do it right’.”

Tuesday, January 15, 2019, was clear and cold with a minimum temperature of about -30C and a daytime temperature of about -20C. The ramp was icy as the Chinook was towed out of its hangar and the “mule”, the towing vehicle, had a hard time getting traction. Later in the day, however, when the Chinook and its load returned to base, the icy ramp and runway worked in their favour, as other flying at 4 Wing had been cancelled for the day, leaving wide open airspace and an empty tarmac for the Chinook to manoeuvre in.

Over the course of the day, the Chinook made three trips to the site. During the first flight, the aircrew checked out alternate landing zones and the best route to ensure that they did not fly above any civilian homes or buildings (for safety reasons).

Nineteen passengers were on the flight: six maintainers from 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, three personnel from the Tactical Air Movements (TAMS) Section at 1 Service Battalion, two TAMS personnel from the Canadian Army Advanced Warfare Centre, two from the Aerospace and Telecommunications Engineering Support Squadron, two photographers from the Aerospace Engineering Text Establishment (AETE), a medic and three recovery and salvage personnel from 4 Operational Support Squadron.

Five aircrew from 450 Squadron were aboard the Chinook; other personnel supporting the mission included three members of 450’s maintenance detachment, an aircrew of three flying a Griffon from 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, additional personnel from AETE, maintenance personnel from 417 Combat Support Squadron and four more photographers.In all more than 50 personnel from nine units participated in the recovery.

After dropping off their passengers, the Chinook crew took aircraft parts from the damaged Griffon back to 4 Wing. Removing the parts, including blades, hoist, tail rotor transmission and horizontal stabilizer, would make the Griffon more stable and less hazardous for the transit.

While the Chinook was flying the parts back to base, work got underway to prepare the Griffon and put the slings in place. Upon returning to the site, the Chinook crew carefully inspected the rigging and made sure it was set properly. A drogue parachute was attached to the tail of the Griffon; this would act much as a boat rudder does, helping to keep the Griffon stable and pointing in the right direction. Even at that, keeping a steady heading and minimizing the Griffon’s oscillation, especially when the Chinook encountered cross-winds, proved to be challenging.

The Chinook flew back to the base at a slow and steady speed of about 45 knots and the approach to the taxiway was smooth. “The Griffon spun slowly about 90 degrees during the hover down” said Major Bergeron, “but the helicopter touched the ground smoothly” and was unhooked from the Chinook.

“The stress level went down and all worries disappeared,” he continued. “The recovery had worked as planned.”

The Chinook was quickly refuelled for the third trip, which brought back the personnel and equipment remaining at the site. It had been an uncomfortably cold five-hour experience for personnel, especially for those who had been working under the Chinook’s downwash, but no one sustained any cold-related injuries.

“Cold injuries were prevented by the supervision of a search and rescue technician on-site and the use of a small cabin that could hold three or four people at a time,” said Major Bergeron.

“We landed back in Cold Lake just prior to sunset,” he continued. “Mission complete! 450 Squadron had proven they have the capability to sling a Griffon safely.

“It was a group effort. Everyone collaborated greatly and were mission-focussed throughout. It was a pleasure to be part of this task.”

“The recovery mission was a high-risk proposition,” said Major-General Christian Drouin, commander of 1 Canadian Air Division. “It was handled extremely professionally and we captured a lot of lessons. We now have this recovery capability because of the professionalism and ingenuity of the personnel involved. It was a true demonstration of ‘Flying in Formation’.

“My sincere appreciation to all those who made this a successful mission and confirmed this capability for the Canadian Armed Forces.”

Flight Safety is of utmost importance to the Royal Canadian Air Force. As such, the flight safety investigation into the December 13, 2018, incident involving the 417 Combat Support Squadron’s Griffon’s is still on-going to uncover the exact cause of the incident, with the aim of mitigating incidents of this nature in the future.