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Belgian NH-90 “Caiman” helicopters flown to Mali by An-124.

| 2018

As announced by the Belgian Ministry of Defense at a press conference in December 2017, the Belgian Air Force launched its air operations in Mali, Serge Van Heertum reports. To complete the tasks of tactical transport and medical evacuation, two of the 18th flight squadron's NH-90TTH “Caiman” (RN06 and RN07) left the Beauvechain base on February 5th.

Belgian NH 90 Helicopters flown to Mali by An 124
One of the two Belgian NH90 helicopters being loaded in an Antonov An-124 (Picture source: Serge Van Heertum)

In order to transport the two machines, the necessary equipment and a dozen technicians, the Russian company "Volga-Dnepr" equipped with Antonov An-124 was called upon. Currently Belgium is not able to provide such a type of transport, the C-130H does not allow the loading of an NH-90 and the A400M is not yet operational under Belgian colors.

To achieve this extraordinary transport, the helicopters were partially dismantled. Thus, the four blades of the main rotor were removed, as well as a tail rotor blade. Some external elements such as some antennas have also been removed to avoid touching the internal structures of the Antonov.

As part of this mission, the two helicopters flying over themselves was also taken in consideration. However, the setting up of such a transfer would have cost much more if you count the flying hours necessary (precious hours that aren't used to carry out the actual missions), the technical stops along the way, the time needed for the planning of the flight plans and stops, but also having to pass close to sensitive areas along the route.

As can be seen, the solution chosen to cover more than 6,000 kilometers was the best and it was under the NATO SALIS program (Strategic Airlift Interim Solution) that transport to Mali was assured. For the members of the Belgian 18th squadron, this type of transport was not a trial run: indeed, two NH-90TTH’s were transported in the same way to Gabon to participate in the large-scale exercise "Tropical Storm", which took place from September 15th to October 15th, 2017. This size of exercise, allowed to refine the logistics approach and adapt the maintenance of helicopters in operation before moving into real operations.

The An-124-100 (RA-82077) of "Volga-Dnepr" landed on runway 04 at 09:52 local time, and immediately parked, the delicate loading could start. After a little bit more than 3 hours, everything was on board and stowed, allowing the Antonov and precious cargo to take off from the Beauvechain runway at 13:43 to head for the Bamako airport.

During the operation, the NH-90’s will be based in Gao, but the reassembly of the machines had to be done in Bamako before passing in flight towards their final destination and probably with a fuel stop at Mopti.

Once in Bamako, the technical teams had the task of reassembling, and performing the necessary tests before the transit flight. As of February 5, at the end of the day, the reassembly began, the tests having been carried on three days later, on February 8. Both machines were declared operational as from 9 February.

Note that the two NH-90s will have to work in a much dustier and technically "hostile" environment. Thus, both helicopters are equipped with blades treated with a special coating providing better protection against dust and pebbles found in sandy soils of the desert type. This special coating obviously modifies the weight of the blades and during the tests, a re-balancing was necessary.


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