Text & Pictures : Serge Van Heertum, others as mentioned - Translation: David Niemegeerts   İ sbap 2018
The transport

As announced by the Ministry of Defense at a press conference in December 2017, the Belgian Air Force launched its air operations in Mali. To complete the tasks of tactical transport and medical evacuation, two of the 18th flight squadron's NH-90TTH (RN06 & RN07) left the Beauvechain base on February 5th.
In order to transport the two machines, the necessary equipment and a dozen technicians, the Ukrainian 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 unmounted, 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 in considered. 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 18th squadron, this type of transport was not a trial run, indeed, two NH-90TTH 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-82047) of "Volga-Dnepr" landed on runway 04 at 09:52 local time, and immediately parked, the delicate loading could begin. After 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 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 05th, at the end of the day, the reassembly began, the tests being planned for February 8th. Both machines should be operational as from 09 February.
Note that the two NH-90s will have to work in a much more dusty, and technically "hostile" environment. Thus both helicopters will be 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 balancing was necessary to establish the right balance.

 Belgian Caïman on African soil
(Bart Rosselle - Mil.beİ)
In flight during the mission "Tropical Storm" in Gabon
(Bart Rosselle - Mil.beİ)
Unusual landscape for the Belgian helicopter pilots
(Bart Rosselle - Mil.beİ)
Above beautiful African lake
(Bart Rosselle - Mil.beİ)
Mali operations
 Training during "Operation Duster" at Fasberg
(Jürgen Braeckevelt - Mil.beİ)
 MEDEVAC exercise
(Jürgen Braeckevelt - Mil.beİ)

The two NH-90 of the Air Force dispatched to Mali as part of the MINUSMA mission (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Mission for the Stabilization of Mali) are in fact integrated into the German envoy already on site, and the some 50 men and women of Belgian Defense are placed under German command. The Belgian contingent includes the pilots, loadmasters, mission planners, technicians, protection forces, but also the staff of the Medical Component for the MEDEVAC part of the mission.
To perfect this collaboration, the men of the 18th squadron had participated in two exercises (Operation Duster) at Fasberg in order to align with the working methods used by their German counterparts.
The helicopters are based in Gao in northeastern Mali, some 1200 kilometers from Bamako for a period of 4 months and renewable for 2 months, depending on the evolution of the German presence. Missions will focus on tactical transport (moving troops or equipment), convoy escort and medical evacuation. The operations will be done in a radius of 150 kilometers during daytime, and 100 kilometers during nighttime, away from Gao.

This is the first operation in a war zone for the NH-90TTH and the personnel of the 18th squadron. Indeed, this low-profile conflict does exist. This war in Mali is an armed conflict that began in 2012, following an insurgency by Salafist pro-Azawad jihadists, and pro-independence groups. It is part of the context of the Sahel war and Tuareg rebellions against the Malian state.
After several months of fighting, a peace agreement ("Algiers Agreement") was signed on June 20th, 2015. However, jihadists continue their attacks, peace agreements are violated many times, ethnic violence takes place. more and more extensively, and until today.

The German Helicopter detachment at Gao (Courtesy German Defenseİ)
 Heerflierger NH-90 ready for take off in a red sand cloud (Courtesy German Defenseİ)
The loading (EBBE February 5th)
 The frost of a winter morning Early the morning the QRH is already stand-by
The two NH-90TTH are ready for loading A minimum number of elements had to be disassembled
 A truck with the blades in special boxes Other material needed for the Malian operation
The flying activities begin... ...with a splendid winter light
 Arrival of the AN-2-100 from "Volga-Dnepr" Landing at 9:52 local time
 A real big bird Back track to the parking
Really big...Isn't it?

 Some focus on the Antonov: The swinging nose One of the four engines
 The main landing gear The inside nose structure with the cockpit platform
 Go for loading... Small material first
 The RN-06 waiting to move into the giant RN-07 will be the first one to board
Almost in the monster mouth Towing the first "baby"
 All main rotor blades have been removed... ...and only one blade from the tail rotor
 Manitou clarck in action
 The first NH-90 is presented for boarding Slowly and with a lot of attention
A focus at the tail during the loading The 6400 kilos of the helicopter are gently swallowed by the giant
 The RN-07 into the cargo bay It is clear that a great attention is required to avoid any damage
 Preparing the material for the second one NH-90 material
 Some other containers before the second helicopter
 The RN-06 waiting on the main runway Manual push to the Antonov loading ramp
 Towed into the AN-124
 The second helicopter is loaded. Some more verifications and doors may be closed
 Take off from Beauvechain airbase at 13:43 local time
Heading towards Mali and Bamako Airport To conclude, a view of the C-130H CH-08 being dismantled
The arrival at Bamako (February 5th 22:00 local)
 In the Antonov AN-124 cargo bay
(Johan Lievens - Mil.beİ)
The helicopter are offloaded the same night...
(Johan Lievens - Mil.beİ)
 ...going to be reassembled
(Johan Lievens - Mil.beİ)
Safely arrived at Bamako
(Johan Lievens - Mil.beİ)
RN-07 first in, second out...
(Johan Lievens - Mil.beİ)
Offloading of the blades containers at the rear door
(Johan Lievens - Mil.beİ)
Gao Airfield Operations
The two NH-90 helicopters arrived at Gao during the weekend of February 10 and 11. After their arrival at Bamako airport on February 05th, the two helicopters were prepared within two days for test flying. The climatic conditions in Mali also necessitated additional measures, moreover when flying in "brown out" conditions. These are landings or take-offs on sandy terrain where huge dirt clouds are thrown up in the air reducing the visibility to zero. This type of exercise also allows the accelerated wear on the rotor blades to be assessed. As mentioned above, the rotor blades received a special coating before leaving for Mali. To protect the engines furthermore, additional sand filters and anti-FOD (Foreign Object Damage) intake grills were installed as well.
The next step for the pilots and crews is to get their UNO qualification. The main task of the Belgian contingent within the German set-up will be the evacuation of wounded out of the combat zones, so called forward medevac missions.
To complete this kind of missions, the NH-90TTH can be equipped with stretchers together with a nurse and a surgeon. This system was successfully tested during the training flights at Fasberg. The Belgian contingent is now well and truly integrated and is ready to start flying real missions.
Preparing for a first flight above Mali
(Johan Lievens - Mil.beİ)
The characteristic red colour of the Malian laterite
(Johan Lievens - Mil.beİ)

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