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Caiman Goes To War

Two ALAT NH90 ‘Caïman’ have been deeply involved in Operation ‘Barkhane’ in Mali.

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Story & Photos by Frederic Lert. 

Since November 2014, two ALAT NH90 ‘Caïman’ have been deeply involved in Operation ‘Barkhane’ in the north of the West African country of Mali. Frédéric Lert reports on their performance in fighting an elusive enemy in a incredibly hostile terrain.


On the vey first day of the Paris airshow in June this year, NH Industries delivered the fifteenth NH90 to the French army aviation (ALAT). The helicopter will join the 1st Combat Helicopters Regiment (1st RHC) based in Phalsbourg (eastern France). The 1st RHC, the first Alat regiment to fly the NH90 Caïman (and also the Tiger HAD), is the showcase of the Alat and this unit offers a good picture of the aircraft’s future.

“We have had a very busy and challenging 2014,” says Colonel Beutter, the unit’s Commanding Officer. “After we received our first new generation helicopters in late 2013, we gained our Première Capacité Opérationnelle (Initial Operational Capability) with both the Caïman and the Tigre HAD during the last summer and we very quickly deployed both aircraft to operations in November 2014. At the same time we took part in the French operation in Africa with Pumas and Gazelles with the equivalent of two battalions (more than 200 people).”

The African operation is taking place in the Republic of Mali. Mali is West African, land locked country with the Sahara Desert in its north and the Niger and Senegal Rivers to its south. It’s main natural resources are Gold (Africa’s largest producer) and Salt.

Marathon flight

Two NH90 Caïman (and a third one will be added very soon) from the 1st RHC are now deployed in Mali for Operation ‘Barkhane’. The two helicopters arrived in Gao on November 3, after a four-day ferry flight. The helicopters made ten stops and clocked a total of 32 flying hours in the transit, the ferry route going through Valence (southern France), Perpignan, Albacete (Spain), Malaga, Agadir (Morocco), Las Palmas (Canary Islands), Nouadhibou (Mauritania, including an overwater 3.5 hours stretch between Las Palmas and Mauritania), Dakar (Senegal), Kayes (Mali), Bamako before finally arriving in Gao. Each helicopter was fitted with three extra fuel tanks (450 kg each) in the cabin, bringing the total fuel on board to slightly more than three tons. With this amount of fuel, the NH90s were flying at their max gross weight (11 tons) with four crewmembers and freight. With an average speed of 130kt, each of the NH90s were able to fly five hours without refueling; more than enough to cope with the longest segments of the ferry flight.

From Dakar, the two helicopters entered Mali through the border town of Kayes where an Armée de l’Air C-160 Transall provided them with 1.3 ton of fuel each. The Transall had been flying from Niamey (Niger) the same day. The longest flight for the NH90s was from Bamako to Gao, some four hours, most of it being tactically flown at low altitude. Mali is considered a war zone by the French. Entering Mali, the crews flew wearing their flack jacket, guns and ammunition. Despite the tactical entry into Mali, the aircraft’s Mag 58 machine guns, which are now being installed on the NH90 for Mali operations, were not mounted on the helicopters.

After a 24-hour rest at their new base, the helicopters were back in the air providing the crews with their first taste of the Malian theater and some training flying into dusty landing areas, day and night. The helicopters and their crews now belong to the Gao-based airmobile group that boasts a total force of a dozen helicopters (Gazelles, Tigers, Pumas, Cougars and now NH90 Caïman).

Difficult terrain

The Sahel region is a difficult one for helicopters, mainly because of the high temperatures and the presence of very small and abrasive sand. A great deal of work is devoted to preventive maintenance, including the technical crew using a vacuum cleaner after each flight to remove the smallest sand particles in the most sensitive areas (air inlet, dynamic components, etc.). Sending the Caïmans into operations was considered as soon as they entered service in late 2013. In June 2014, three aircraft (including a spare) were selected and the preparation began. Special attention was paid to protection against the Malian sand and dust including the aircraft receiving an additional sand filter on the auxiliary power units. The windshields have also inherited protective films against sand and small-pebble projections. Certain panels were made airtight to prevent dust ingestion. Particular attention was also paid to the blades (main rotor and tail) which always suffer from sand abrasion. A conventional fix is to add protective stickers on the leading edge of the blades. But it is a tedious job and instead a polyurethane paint-based solution has been developed for the NH90.

Preparatory work also focused on the creation of a deployment kit. To date, this kit includes 1030 spare parts, among other things, for a total value of €17 million. It is divided into fifteen standard containers, which were shipped in two Antonov 124s to Niamey (Niger). From there, the containers were taken by road (a day’s drive) to Gao a few days before the Caïmans landed in Mali. “This kit covers a four-month deployment for four helicopters, with an average of 30 flying hours per month, per aircraft," says a logistics officer. "The kit will evolve, based on the real needs encountered during the operation,” he said.

War Veteran

Sending the NH90 into a war zone so quickly after it entered service was a calculated but risky bet. It goes without saying that their flight engineers monitor both Caïmans closely.

In France, regular maintenance includes a visual check every 25 flying hours. “In Mali, we open all the panels after every flight,” says a flight engineer. “We want to monitor closely where the sand goes, and find out about any premature wear particularly in the sand filters, the air inlet, all the dynamics parts and the main avionics bay.” The ALAT is not the only one to be very cautious about the behavior of its aircraft. NH Industries and Airbus Helicopters are also on the lookout, asking for precise and steady reports on helicopters’ performances. Beyond the operational risk, sending the first Caïmans into operation represents a significant industrial challenge.

With nearly 300 flying hours under their belt in Mali, of which more than 30% is by night, the NH90 is now considered a veteran with excellent results. The availability with the helicopter is said to be better than 80%. Tactical flying by day and night with landings in brownout conditions are commonplace. “When they landed in Gao, the first thing our crew did was to qualify on brown-out landings by day and night ,” said an officer. Compared to the H225 Caracal, the NH90 offers better range and speed notably through better engine efficiency in certain conditions. “The Cayman is well adapted to long autonomous flights,” explained one of the pilots. “Digital mapping is very accurate and the computers give us the instantaneous consumption depending on our altitude, speed and weight. In operation, we always know exactly what is our playtime, which greatly facilitates the management of the mission.” Overall, the Caïman consumes less than a Puma while going faster and offering a much higher payload.

Special forces Cayman

A consequence of the successful Malian deployment is that the NH90 could be adopted faster than expected by the ALAT’s 4th Special Forces Helicopter Regiment (4ème RHFS). Last year, 4ème RHFS’s high-ranking officers were saying that the Caracal was good enough for them and better equipped than the NH90 for special forces missions. The 4ème RHFS was in a wait and see attitude and the question of introducing the Caïman was barely considered as a number 3 priority, number 1 being the Cougar’s upgrading and number 2 the Tiger HAD entry into service. The successful deployment in Mali however led the 4ème RHFS to change its mind. Some crewmembers of the unit (pilots, flight engineers and maintenance specialists) will soon travel to the Gamstat (French army aviation test center) and conduct several flights representative of operational missions with the Gamstat’s sole NH90. The 4ème RFSH delegation will also pay a close attention to the helicopter’s maintenance and logistic needs. A basic set of requirements for customizing the NH90 to the Special Forces needs could be written before the year’s end and an entry into service could be attainable in 2018, several years ahead of the previous projections.

In the meantime, Operation Barkhane will likely be reinforced with a third NH90 and a plan exists to send a fourth in due course. Helicopters are available (15 have been delivered so far) but the ALAT is struggling to train more crew and maintenance specialists.


Gao, Alat stronghold in Mali

After the successful completion of operation Serval in 2013, which saw the liberation of Mali, Opération Barkhane was launched on August 1st, 2014, to fight jihadism in the Sahel and Sahara regions with a total force of 3000 soldiers. In the eastern part of this zone, the French forces are based in N’Djamena (Chad). In the west, the French center of gravity is located in Gao, a tent city being erected on the edge of the airport. The helicopter force benefits from large deployable shelters, which are used for maintenance purpose and to protect helicopters against sandstorms. In 2013, two Pumas had been destroyed on the ground when they were hit by a severe sandstorm with gusts powerful enough to unchain them and roll them on their sides. The logistical hub for the region is in Niamey (Niger), with also a strong French air force contingent with transport aircraft, surveillance drones and fighter-bombers. In Gao, the civilian terminal, damaged during the fighting in 2013, is now the headquarters of UN air operations in the country. Gao is no longer served by commercial airlines. The main runway is a 2500m long and will undergo a major resurfacing work in 2015. As a stopgap measure, French air force engineers built a 1800m dirt strip parallel to it last summer. Approach control is provided by French military controllers coming from the Air Force and the ALAT. A mobile air tower is erected near the runway and a Spartiate radar is used for GCA. The French also provide weather and firefighting services. Due to the proximity of Niamey (less than 500 km), a large part of the logistics is done by trucks. On the French side, a Casa 235 is maintained on stand-by 24hrs a day for casevac emergencies and a Transall based in Niamey is regularly seen shuttling between the main Malian cities and the neighboring countries.


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