When a Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 from Tehran to Kyiv crashed soon after takeoff early Wednesday, the world was reminded once again of how complicated and dangerous the airspace near and above the Persian Gulf can be.
The Five Eyes group of western intelligence countries to which Canada belongs declared Thursday that their preliminary finding is that the jetliner was shot down due to a mistake made by an Iranian missile battery crew.
The tragedy will have resonated with those RCAF pilots tasked with extracting to neighbouring Kuwait some of the 250 Canadian military trainers and troops from other western nations, who were part of the same mission and other missions in Iraq.
Canada’s tricky evacuation mission began after NATO suspended the Canadian-led training mission over the weekend. Iraq subsequently said it wanted all foreign forces out. Additional confusion was caused when the Pentagon sent contradictory messages about whether the U.S. was joining the exodus.
To land a $250-million, four-engine C-17 military jumbo in such potentially “hot” situations requires great skill, bravery, and a fantastic amount of training back at the RCAF’s main transport hub CFB Trenton. Those charged with getting the Canadian trainers and diplomats and other “western” friendlies out of Iraq are men and women who are as young as 24 years old.
The pilots work with runways that may only be 1,000 metres long in an aircraft that can carry payloads of as much as 77,500 kilograms — payloads that may include tanks, armoured personnel carriers and giant C-47 helicopters with their rotors stowed.
I have done several combat landings on RCAF C-17s in Afghanistan and on US Air Force aircraft flying into Baghdad, as well as the joint Iraqi-American bases at Erbil and Ain Al-Assad that were attacked by Iranian medium-range ballistic missiles earlier this week.
Such flights never involve straight-in approaches and often take place at night, in order to lessen the chance of being spotted from the ground. They can involve such tight turns that passengers pull a few G’s. It often feels as if the wingtips of the massive aircraft will hit the ground.
Another tactic to get into potential hostile airfields can involve corkscrewing down from 10,000 metres, all within the confines of the security perimeter of these airports. The idea is to spiral as tightly as possible for several minutes before pulling the nose up at the last second to land.
Such dramatics are required because there are lethal anti-aircraft missile systems linked to radars all over the Middle East, and especially in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Iran.
Landing, of course, is only one part of the journey. Taking off can also be dangerous, as was tragically illustrated by the downing of the Ukrainian airliner. The idea then is to ascend as quickly as possible, or sometimes to fly at a very low altitude for several minutes to get clear of surface-to-air missiles that are usually located near airports.
None of the RCAF CF-17 transports are armed. Their only defence is a set of thermal sensors mounted on the aircraft, which can detect the signature of a missile being launched. They provide the two-person cockpit crew with a warning whenever an incoming missile is detected.
The sensors are connected to a chaff and flare decoy system that, when triggered automatically or by the pilots, set off spectacular fireworks-style bursts designed to divert missiles that, as seems to have happened in the case with the Ukrainian airline, aim for the heat generated by a jet’s engines.
A pair of Canadian fighter pilots who between them have many decades of flying experience said Thursday that after reviewing videos of the crash scene, they agreed with initial assessments by the Five Eyes and other experts that the jetliner was shot down by a Russian-made surface-to-air-missile of a type known to be operated by the Iranians.
What the video “clearly” showed was “the nose cone from an SA-15,” one of the pilots told me. “The holes in the aircraft skin look like fragmentation damage for the type of warhead carried by the SA-15. All circumstantial, but all pointing in one direction.
“If it was a shootdown, I doubt that the government would have initiated it; more likely a panicky SA-15 battery in the midst of a lot of other s— going on.”
Smaller, but equally deadly surface-to-air or SAM systems are thought to be in the hands of some of the many different terrorist groups operating in Iraq.
Hence, the great vigilance that RCAF crews will be taking every time they enter Iraqi airspace to retrieve their colleagues, navigating airspace that will inevitably be crowded with fighter jets and reconnaissance aircraft, too.
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas