SAFRAN in the Afghan skies
The skies above Kabul are abuzz with the Mil Mi-8 and Mi-17s that patrol the Afghan capital. These Russian-made helicopters certainly live up to their reputation of being rugged, solid and powerful. Yet when the night falls, or when the weather conditions become too bad, the Mils remain grounded. All that then remain left are the three EC-725 Caracal helicopters of the French Air Force detachment.
These eleven-ton twin-engine machines are currently the most sophisticated aircraft available in Kabul. They are the only ones to be capable of being mobilized whatever the weather, by day or night, on a broad range of missions, including transporting personnel or equipment and reconnaissance. Yet their key mission remains the medical evacuation ("medevac") of NATO soldiers and Afghan civilians. "Our helicopters are there to serve everyone, and the ultimate goal of our activities is to help Afghanistan get back on its feet," explains Lieut. Col. Olivier C., head of the detachment.
With a ramshackle road network, under permanent threat of ambush from groups of insurgents, the helicopter often represents the only chance of survival for the seriously injured and wounded. In a five-month period last year, the Caracal detachment registered 335 flying hours, 54 of which were at night. It carried out 24 medevac missions, bringing in a total of 50 or so injured or wounded.
Autopilot and engines
The crews are full of praise about the Caracal's two outstanding features: the excellence of the autopilot and the reliability of the engines.
“The autopilot is really sophisticated [editor's note: the SAFRAN Group, through its Sagem Avionics subsidiary, was involved in producing this autopilot], and is perfectly suited to the helicopter and its complex missions," they say. “On the EC-725 there are highly secure traditional autopilot advanced modes (maintaining speed, bearing and altitude, gaining altitude, etc.) as well as exceptional advanced modes such as automatic hover. Even in strong side winds or really bad weather, the EC-725 offers extraordinary stability and precision." As far as the engines are concerned, despite the difficult operating conditions (high altitude, high temperatures, etc.) the Makila 2A engines from Turbomeca (SAFRAN Group) prove flawless. The EC-725s boast a perfect availability record (better than 95%), even when taking account of the programmed maintenance operations.
And then there is the omnipresent dust, getting under the skin of man and machine alike. The helicopters are washed once a week and are subject to a careful preventive maintenance program. These efforts are clearly paying off, since no non-programmed change of engine has been necessary since the start of deployment. At the end of its service life, one Makila has indeed been replaced, and the operation required less than half a day's work for a three-man team. “The first stage of the engine that we dismantled was an impressive sight," explains the adjutant in charge of the operation. “It was completely worn down by the sand, but it had perfectly fulfilled its role by absorbing most of the wear and tear."
To view the full photo report on the Caracals in Afghanistan: click here