Rotary wings over Bosnia

Frederic Lert reports on French and Norwegian helicopter detachments deployed to the former Yugoslavia in support of UN operations in Bosnia.

SITUATED ON THE Adriatic coastline, 6 miles (10km) from the Croatian town of Split, Divulje has always been a major naval base. During World War Two, Axis seaplanes used its facilities to patrol the Adriatic Sea, and afterwards the base was used by Yugoslav naval aviation.

Today, Divulje is an important Croatian base with a headquarters and a small Mi-8 Hip squadron. Since the start of UN operations in the former Yugoslavia, Divulje has also become a major United Nation Protection Force (UNPROFOR) installation — indeed, the biggest in southern Croatia. It currently plays host to a Spanish logistics base, a British headquarters and helicopter force of four Sea Kings and the French Detalat (ALAT detachment) — all of which are supporting UN forces in neighbouring Bosnia.

The first French ground elements from the Etain-based 3rd RHC (Regiment d’Helicopteres de Combat) arrived in Divulje on October 10, 1992 — its complement of five Pumas and four Gazelles flew in from France six weeks later. Departing Etain, the helicopters flew to Le Luc in Provence, southern France, where they refuelled. They continued on to Ancone in Italy and then embarked on the third leg of their journey across the Adriatic to Divulje, a total flying time was roughly 9 hours.

The detachment is relieved every six months — and so far this has involved ground and flight personnel from the 6th RHC from Compiegne, and the 7th RHC based at Essey les Nancy.

The hardware, however, is only replaced upon completion of its maintenance cycle. The aircraft have been repainted in an all-white colour scheme, with national and army markings deleted, and in accordance with UN regulations, the last three letters of the registration number have been written on a piece of cardboard and placed in the cockpit so that it is clearly visible from the outside.

Currently the French detachment comprises nearly 250 personnel, half of them are flight crew (pilots, co-pilots and flight engineers) and there is a small group of 40 infantrymen who protect the helicopters on the ground. During its first year of operation the Puma flew more than 1,500 hours, while the Gazelle totalled 1,200 flying hours.

There have been no accidents reported and in addition to completing hundreds of VIP and liaison flights, more than 100 CASEVAC missions have been performed. Like all the other UN forces in the former Yugoslavia, the Detalat helicopters have to follow very strict operating procedures. They must fly only in acknowledged air corridors and at predetermined altitudes, often in adverse weather conditions.

Last, but not least, every helicopter leaving or returning to Divulje is required to stop at Split International Airport’s apron to notify the authorities of its movements. There is a constant procession of UN helicopters landing at Split, taxiing to the main airport building and waiting until the co-pilot returns, having got clearance to continue the flight.

Norwegians at Tuzla

Tuzla is the largest city in northern Bosnia, 124 miles (200km) from Split and very close to the front line with the Serbs. Tuzla’s airport, 6 miles (10km) away, is controlled by the Swedish Blue Berets, but there are no aircraft movements here because the Serbs are close enough to shell the apron. UN air activity is restricted to a much quieter area, south of the town, where the Royal Norwegian Air Force has had four Bell 412s deployed since October 1993. The 40-strong detachment is led by a 720 Sqn officer, Major Erik Dokken. Some of the crew are also recruited from 339 Sqn based at Bardufoss air station.

The Bells are located next to a Norwegian-run UN hospital and their primary mission is to provide medical assistance and CASEVAC. To date, 2,300 hours have been flown with no losses, although the helicopters have been fired at several times and up until June 1995 they had sustained nine hits. On one occasion, a crew member felt a bullet strike the Kevlar plate under his right foot. Since then, things have been relatively quiet, but the crews still wear bullet-proof jackets.

In order to protect the Bells in this hostile environment, they have been fitted with a number of special devices not used on a regular basis in Norway. Major Dokken explained, «The GPS receiver is certainly a key feature for air operations in Bosnia, as we have to follow narrow air corridors if we don’t want to be considered as spies and shot at…» Clearance must be obtained for each flight from the Armija (Bosnian army) 2nd Corps based at Tuzla.

The Bells are also fitted with a hoist, should they have to rescue personnel (quite often tank crews) trapped in mine fields. To prepare for these missions, special training is carried out with the Danish Leopard MBT crews, based at an adjacent camp. For self protection, IR jammers (disco lights), as well as chaff and flare dispensers are standard features.

«Our helicopters have not encountered any missile engagements on routine missions up to now,» said Major Dokken. «But we have used our dispensers on several occasions. The activity of mobile weapon systems in central Bosnia changes rapidly, and sporadic gun and SAM locks require certain defensive manoeuvres…»

The helicopters are also fitted with Radar Warning Receivers (RWR) which are quite effective, according to Major Dokken: «We could check that our RWR worked well when we realised that friendly radars, actually NATO fighter radars, were tracking us from above…»

Out of the 1,820 hours Hown in 1994, 197 were concerned with CASEVAC missions where the crew is supplemented by a doctor and nurse, 912 hours involved personnel supply, 323 hours were for VIP flights and AWM 216 hours were used up for training.

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