West Africa - SahelReport

Belgian helicopters on Medevac duty in Bamako

Major Mignolet, head of the Belgian detachment, next to the A 109 helicopter

(BRUSSELS2 – continuation of the report in Bamako) This is undoubtedly not the essential point of the European mission to train the Malian army. But it is one of the necessary constituent elements: the Belgian A109 helicopters, equipped with a Medevac module, are there if necessary to carry out the medical evacuation of one of the soldiers injured or ill during the mission.

On standby 24 hours a day

Housed on the airport tarmac in Air Mali premises, the Belgian “medevac” team has around thirty people – including 6 pilots – and two helicopters.

It is, in fact, not only a matter of having the necessary staff for the on-call duty but also of being able to carry out all the necessary maintenance and/or repairs on the machines, including the largest overhauls (such as that of the 100 hours ). One of the two helicopters was coming out of its 100-hour overhaul during my visit. The soldiers also took away the stock of parts necessary for this objective. Being based at the airport has an advantage: “ be able to benefit from all the services and benefits of the airport » explains Major Mignolet, commander of the Belgian detachment (the Red Card Holder as the person in charge of verifying that the conditions of the mission are met is called). This allows you to be able to also count on the necessary assistance » other devices (civil or military) present at the airport. Many military planes shuttle to Europe, either to bring teams for EUTM Mali, or on behalf of Misma or Serval.

The permanent Medevac

The teams – driver and mechanic – take turns in three sets of staff to ensure permanence. With one imperative: to be in the air in 30 minutes during the day, 45 minutes at night, immediately after the alert. The helicopter's range is 115 nautical miles or 210 km without refueling. This allows you to go back and forth to Koulikoro without problem, or even go further if there is a supply. What " allows you to cover an area where there is no combat ". possible area up to Mopti.

The air or the road

A priori, evacuation to Role 2 is done by road. The helicopter intervenes, rather as a secondary means, as part of a repatriation to Europe (via Bamako airport). In Koulikoro, the Belgians chose to rest on the beach, which “ easier access because it is clearer and produces less dust than inside the camp ».

The road route is certainly possible between Koulikoro and Bamako. But it takes around 2 hours of driving (1h30 possibly) on a somewhat rocky and congested road compared to 15-20 minutes by helicopter. Which makes flying more practical if the weather permits. In all cases, the choice belongs to the medical manager (the JMed) who chooses the most appropriate means – road or air – and, ultimately, to the operation commander.

The only problem (at the time I was there) was that the flight over Bamako was not yet authorized, still in negotiation with the Malian authorities. The SOMA – status of the mission – signed by the Europeans does not include this aspect. It is a specific, ad hoc agreement that must be negotiated.

On-site medical care

Medical assistance on board is provided by the nurse. The doctor is normally already on site: the doctor from Role 2 in Koulikoro, the doctor from the General Staff (Bulgarian) if it is in Bamako.

The medical technique of Europeans is different from that practiced by Americans. These tend to involve the helicopter more systematically, to evacuate the injured as quickly as possible to a hospital structure, using the “rush and run” technique. Europeans prefer to bring doctors closer to the injured person and then choose the most appropriate means.

A certain pooling of medical resources

The helicopters are normally reserved for the European mission EUTM Mali for which they are dedicated. But, if necessary, being one of the only helicopters available in Bamako, they can intervene for any medical repatriation “deemed useful” by the head of mission for “allies” or “friends”. Thus they could intervene for the benefit of Malians injured during training or in other places, or even African forces or the French forces of Serval. In the same way, the Europeans have, if necessary, the French Operation Serval hospital. Informally, medical resources are pooled and can be used, in the event of an emergency, for one or the other. The application, nothing more, nothing less, of the Hippocratic oath, as a military doctor explained to B2.

Flight conditions very different from Europe

The difficulty or rather the difference with the other missions (in Europe) is obvious. " We have far fewer benchmarks than in Europe. If we deviate from the axis of the Niger River, we will fly with navigation instruments or dead reckoning, a bit old-fashioned, with the map. And, as the distances are long there is little room for error. At night, there is very little light provided by the ground. » We must therefore take into account… the moon. Conditions non-existent in Europe.

Heat (which produces less lift between 25 and 40%) and dust are also two important constants that must be taken into account. Especially in the take-off and landing phases. " It's more the collateral effect of the dust for those on the ground which is essential. " We got used to these landing conditions » where dust makes visibility zero. But for the maintenance of the aircraft, this also plays a role “ Helicopters suffer. Plexiglas, compressor areas (alu) ". A very “dust” different from Benin » where the Belgian crews have already been deployed. Lighter no doubt, sandier…

Necessary maintenance

After each day of flying, there is daily maintenance of the helicopter, which takes 1 or 2 hours, with cleaning and checking of the control set, and other tests. The 100-hour overhaul is more extensive, the helicopter is dismantled and reassembled, an operation which takes 4 to 5 days. The very major maintenance (every 600 hours) is not carried out on site but in Belgium, on the Beauvechain base. But there's not much to worry about, the average flight time is 50 hours per month. Apart from intervention times, pilots must continue to fly and train. “ We have a training syllabus for pilots » otherwise they lose certain qualifications…

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).