September 12, 2018 5:30 am
Updated: September 13, 2018 9:59 am

Canadian peacekeepers’ first medical air evacuation in Mali a success despite severe weather

The Canadian troops who recently arrived in Mali are not most afraid of the armed rebel groups battling for control there. The soldiers are actually most concerned about Mother Nature. Jeff Semple reports from Gao.

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The Canadian Armed Forces have conducted their first medical air evacuation of a United Nations’ solider in Mali.

A statement from Canada’s Department of National Defence said the Canadian troops “were woken up in the early hours this morning (Sept. 11) by a request for medical evacuation north of Gao.”

The statement said the evacuation was successful, though the deployment was briefly delayed due to severe weather conditions in the area.

READ MORE: Jeff Semple: Canadian peacekeepers ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ with German, Dutch troops in Mali

Canada joined the peacekeeping mission in the West African nation last month, with a mandate to provide air support to 15,000 UN forces with eight Canadian helicopters.

Canada’s most important job is air medical evacuations. But in the early days of the Canadian mission, the weather is making the operation difficult and even dangerous.

WATCH BELOW: Exclusive: Inside Canada’s military mission in Mali

Since Canada officially joined the UN operation, Mali’s “rainy season” has lived up to its name. The average August rainfall in Bamako, Mali, is 311 mm (by comparison, Kelowna, British Columbia, is 26 mm).

Camp Castor, the Canadian base in the northern city of Gao, is regularly reduced to a giant puddle. Canada’s UN allies, such as the Dutch and German forces who conduct ground patrols in the region, have found the roadways washed out.

“Especially in the rainy season, some roads cannot be passed by cars,” said German Lt.-Col. Michael Weckbach. “Helicopter is the only medium.”

A Canadian CH-147F Chinook helicopter is deployed on a medical evacuation training exercise near Gao, Mali. The medical team includes a doctor, nurse and two medics.

Jeff Semple / Global News

But Canada’s helicopters have had their own weather troubles. Canadian avionics technician Mike Kovalev has been busy conducting maintenance and repairs.

“A rainstorm rolled in the other day and actually flooded one of our helicopters — the pedestal in the middle, the whole cockpit was soaked. So we had to take everything apart.”

Like much of Africa’s Sahel, Mali suffers from both an unpredictable rainy season and frequent droughts.

The Canadian troops have already experienced duststorms — a wall of sand that can arrive without warning — and scorching temperatures of over 40 C.

Heavy rainstorms in Mali have flooded roads and even one of the Chinook helicopters.

Jeff Semple / Global News

“The hardest thing on the helicopter is the environment,” said Major Sue French, a Canadian engineering officer. “Of course, the heat, instruments don’t always respond well to the heat.”

For a mission that involves flying rescue missions at a moment’s notice, that’s a dangerous combination.

During a visit to the Canadian Forces base in Gao this month, Global News was invited aboard one of Canada’s Chinook helicopters for a training exercise that involved a practice landing on an overcast night.

Night vision used during a training exercise in Mali.

Jeff Semple / Global News

But shortly after takeoff, the visibility went from poor to zero. A combination of dust, haze and an unexpected lightning storm forced the helicopter to turn back to base.

Fortunately, it was only a training exercise. But it was nonetheless a reminder of a climate that can be both unforgiving and unpredictable.

“This is an enormous country with not a whole lot of weather stations in it,” said Col. Chris McKenna, Canada’s Task Force commander. “So we do a lot of predictive analysis using models, using satellites, but not a lot of weather stations. We have a weather challenge here.”

READ MORE: Canadian helicopters are ‘flying emergency rooms’ in Mali peacekeeping mission

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