Maintaining an Aircraft in Mali


By Dawnieca Palma, Canadian Joint Operations Command Public Affairs

On a standard world map, Mali hangs just above the equator. The sun pours itself over a subtropical landscape, soaking deserts and jungles in its heat. Seasonally, a flock of windstorms overwhelm Mali, making the weather a powerful obstacle to the UN peacekeepers on the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

For one year, Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members have been providing medical evacuation support for MINUSMA under Operation PRESENCE. Like any vehicle, the three CH-147 Chinook helicopters and five CH-146 Griffon helicopters require careful maintenance.

Corporal (Cpl) Chris Smith, a maintenance technician with the Chinook battalion, and Warrant Officer (WO) Daniel Allaire, an aircraft maintenance superintendent for the Griffon helicopters and inspection manager, go over how unique elements of Mali’s weather affect aircraft maintenance at Camp Castor in Gao, Mali.

The first element they list is the heat. Because of the heat, most aircraft maintenance is typically done at night. There are two crews over a 24-hour period. However, the night shift will do most of preventative and corrective maintenance because it is too hot during the day, even inside the air-conditioned hangar.

Coupled with the heat are strong winds and clouds of dust. “It’s hard to picture here, but there is a lot of dust in the air. Even in the office with the door closed, dust gets in,” WO Allaire describes. This becomes one of the biggest challenges for the aircraft because of the potential damage it can cause by reacting to the oils or electronics in the aircraft.

“It’s very dusty, so we have to be extra vigilant when it comes to inspecting certain items on the aircraft,” Cpl Smith continues.

To mitigate this, Royal Canadian Air Force technicians clean the aircraft about every fifty hours. “So we usually close everything up, seal up the aircraft, and literally just take a pressure-washer,” explains Cpl Smith. “It’s no different than washing your car, so it usually takes half an hour or forty minutes.”

Finally, the maintenance teams prepare for Haboob season, a period in the summer months where sandstorms and windstorms occur frequently. During this season, the potential of aircraft damage increases without the proper maintenance.

Cpl Smith explains how Haboob season can damage an aircraft. “Basically, the aircraft is getting sandblasted, but anything that’s lying around is also going to get picked up,” he starts. “It could damage a windscreen, or a rotor blade. We really just want everything to be inside, away from the elements.”

To get ahead of this problem, the crews try to keep the backup aircraft in the hangar when possible. But the MEDEVAC aircraft stay on the loop, an area outside of the hangar where the aircraft are placed for easy access and flight.

Approximately a half hour before a storm, the maintenance team will usually get a radio call from the Meteorological technicians. Then, a team will move the aircraft into the hangar. It’s all about limiting the aircraft’s exposure to the elements.

“We’ll usually send six guys out, two per hangar, to go close the doors,” Cpl Smith explains the process for the Chinook helicopter. “If it’s a full crew towing the Chinook, you’re going to have the driver, two wing-walkers, and someone holding the chops to keep the tires from moving inadvertently. And usually, if it’s just outside the hangar, we can have that in within a minute and a half.”

W.O Allaire expands on the process, “In the worst case scenario, it would take about 25 to 26 minutes.” However, the process usually takes about 16 minutes to tow all the aircraft. Afterwards, the crew waits inside the hangar with the aircraft until the sandstorm clears.

Maintaining these aircraft in the Malian weather requires teamwork and practice. CAF members are constantly practicing, honing their speed and synchronicity in performing these procedures.

But the extreme heat, heavy dust and seasonal sandstorms can be dangerous. So, above all, the maintenance crew at Camp Castor considers the safety of their crew. “Our main concern is safety,” says WO Allaire. “Dealing with aircraft is always delicate, we don’t want to have anybody’s safety at risk.”

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