Thursday, August 20, 2009

Crashed British Chinook destroyed to keep it out of Taleban hands


British troops have lost a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan after it was hit by ground fire and destroyed by a Nato bomber to keep it out of Taleban hands. The Chinook was hit by small arms fire as it was taking off north of Sangin, in Helmand province. A special forces unit had disembarked with their kit only minutes earlier, but when it lifted off with its four-man crew on board, it came under attack. The engine burst into flames and the crew had to fight the controls to make an emergency landing. “They managed to fly the Chinook forward 500m to reach a safe area before landing it,” the Ministry of Defence said.

A second Chinook, which was following, picked the crew up. None of the four was hurt. The “unrecoverable” helicopter was still on fire and a decision was taken to destroy it to prevent Taleban fighters from seizing any of the equipment on board. A Nato bomber was called in and dropped a 500lb bomb on the wreckage. Last month a private contractor’s MI26 helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade, also in the Sangin district in northern Helmand. Six Ukrainian crew members and an Afghan child on the ground were killed.

Although the MoD never confirm how many twin-rotor Chinooks are deployed in Afghanistan, there are estimated to be between 10 and 13, of which 3 or 4 have been upgraded with extra armour and armaments to be flown on special forces operations. The Chinook, the biggest of the RAF helicopters in Helmand, is capable of transporting more than 50 soldiers and plays a vital part in ferrying troops and supplies around Helmand. With one Chinook down, British Forces will have to rely more than ever on the Americans and other coalition partners to fill the gap. When the Panther’s Claw mission began in central Helmand in June, some of the 3,000 British troops involved had to be deployed to their area of operations in American Black Hawks. The MoD emphasised that all Nato assets were shared and played down the controversy caused when it was claimed that British troops had to “borrow” US helicopters because there were not enough RAF Chinooks in Helmand.

After the incident on Wednesday, the MoD said that Joint Helicopter Command, the tri-service organisation, was preparing to provide another Chinook as quickly as possible, although no details were given on how this would be achieved. The RAF has a fleet of 27 Chinooks, many of them in England at the airbase at Odiham, Hampshire. Any replacement will require an upgrade. The special forces had been promised their own fleet of adapted Chinooks in the 1990s. Eight Mark 3s, with highly advanced avionics, were ordered from Boeing and delivered in 2001 at a cost of £259 million, but the MoD realised they had failed to include in the contract a transfer of the avionics technology software secrets.

The Chinooks could not be certified as airworthy without the software knowhow: the pilots lined up to train on them could not fly them in cloud or poor weather. As a result, the Mark 3s were parked in climate-controlled hangars at Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, where they remained for the next few years. In 2004, the MoD negotiated with Boeing to upgrade the eight helicopters, including modifications to the cockpits, at a cost of £215 million. But it took 30 months for the programme to be agreed and in 2006 it was announced that 3,300 troops were to be sent to Helmand.

As a result, the MoD decided to cancel the Mark 3 upgrade project and convert the special forces helicopters into ordinary troop-carrying utility aircraft. But the costs for this programme rose from £53 million to £90 million and the eight “reverted” Chinooks, costing a total of £500 million, are not due to be ready for operations in Afghanistan until next year at the earliest.

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