in Defence / Features

Legacy of Ghav's pioneers of peace

Posted 22 November 2017 · Add Comment

For more than a decade, the Ghana Aviation Unit (GHAV) was deployed in Côte d'Ivoire as part of a UN peacekeeping force. Erwan de Cherisey looks at what was achieved and the legacy left by the unit as it finally went home earlier this year.

On January 20, the last elements of the GHAV, deployed since 2006 under the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), departed, putting an end to more than 10 years of continuous Ghana Air Force (GAF) helicopter operations in the country.
Throughout its decade-long deployment, the GHAV provided sterling air support in trying conditions to the military and civilian components of UNOCI.
It also established a historical precedent as the first African military helicopter unit to be deployed in a UN peacekeeping operation, paving the way for subsequent deployments by other African countries such as Ethiopia, Rwanda or Senegal.
The establishment of UNOCI was authorised through the UN Security Council resolution 1528 of February 27, 2004, with the responsibility of facilitating the implementation of the peace agreement signed in 2003 by the belligerents of the Ivorian Civil War.
UNOCI formally began its operations on April 4, 2004, replacing the United Nations Mission in Côte d’Ivoire (MINUCI), which had been active since 2003.
As a long-time contributor to peacekeeping operations worldwide and a proponent of regional stability, Ghana, which shares a border with Côte d’Ivoire, pledged significant support to UNOCI, deploying a medical unit and an infantry battalion under its banner.
With UNOCI in dire need of military air support assets, Accra soon decided to further increase its contribution by committing an aviation unit to the operation.
While the GAF had already deployed air assets in support of the Economic Community of West African States ceasefire-monitoring group (ECOMOG) in Sierra Leone, in the 1990s, it had never done so as part of a UN-sponsored peacekeeping operation.
The GAF was, thus, tasked to prepare a helicopter unit for deployment, which would be comprised of an Agusta A109AM and two Mi-17V5s hailing from the GAF’s 3 Squadron, headquartered at Air Force Base Accra.
As Group Captain Joshua Mensah-Larkai, seven times commander of the GHAV between 2012 and 2017, explained: “An advance party of three officers and 17 men was deployed in the UNOCI area of operations on July 20, 2006. The main body of 16 officers and 84 men and women was deployed on August 10, 2006.”
The unit established itself on the Bouake Airfield, 350km North of Abidjan.
According to Mensah-Larkai, the unit’s mission statement was: “To provide long-term helicopter support operations in support of UN peacekeeping activities as mandated by the UN Security Council.”
In operational terms this meant conducting a wide variety of tasks, including troop transport, troop insertion and extraction, armed escort, quick reaction force (QRF) response, aeromedical evacuation, search and rescue (SAR), reconnaissance, patrol, logistics support, cargo transport, and training support.
In its first years of operation, the unit used its A109AM in the transport role, as well as for armed reconnaissance or escort, with the aircraft being equipped with a pair of light-machine gun pods for such duties. However, by 2011, the type was due for major servicing and the decision was taken to withdraw it from operational service.
The two Mi-17V5, which had, hitherto, provided the bulk of the unit’s operational capability, were withdrawn from Ivory Coast back to Ghana in 2013 and replaced with a pair of more capable Mi-171Sh, of which 3 Squadron had received four examples that same year.
As Mensah-Larkai highlighted, the Mi-171Sh featured several improvements over the older Mi-17V5: “They were fitted with armour plates and had an endurance of five hours [thanks to a pair of externally mounted additional fuel tanks], compared to the Mi-17V5, which had three hours’ endurance.
“The five hours’ endurance allowed the unit to conduct operations across the length and breadth of Côte d'Ivoire without refuelling.”
Additionally, like the Mi-17V5s, each of the new aircraft was equipped with a Spectrolab Nightsun spotlight under the fuselage.
On October 28, 2008, the GHAV lost one of its Mi-17V5s. The helicopter was on a personnel transport flight between Daloa and Danane when, on approach to the Danane helipad, it lost tail rotor authority. The aircrew’s swift decision to execute a forced landing allowed for the survival of all on board with only minor injuries, while the helicopter was written off due to extensive damage.
While the unit started out with a complement of 120 men and women in 2006, the subsequent reduction of the number of aircraft in service from three to two meant that these numbers were eventually reduced and that, by 2016, its personnel strength stood at 91.
Prior to their deployment to the mission area, GHAV personnel underwent a three-week preparatory training in Ghana, which included lectures on the context of the UNOCI presence, the mission’s purpose, its rules of engagement, as well as field training in weapons handling and helicopter operations, including gunship training.
GAF personnel were initially deployed to Côte d’Ivoire for six months. However, the duration was eventually extended to 12 months, in line with UN requirements.
The maintenance of the GHAV fleet was conducted in Bouake by the unit’s technicians up to level 2. Major servicing required sending the aircraft back to Ghana, at which time a replacement helicopter was provided. Over its decade-long deployment, through successive aircraft rotations, the GHAV operated one A109AM, three Mi-17V5s and four Mi-171Sh.
In more than 10 years, the GHAV had only four different commanders, including Air Vice Marshal Maxwell Mantserbi-Tei Nagai, who headed four deployments and is now the chief of air staff of the GAF.
Mensah-Larkai, who commanded the unit in the course of seven tours of duty, is notable for having clocked a record 1,500 flying hours in his time in Côte d’Ivoire.
“Flying in the Ivorian airspace was quite challenging due to the non-availability of navigation aids nationwide, and the hostile environment that the unit operated in,” said Mensah-Larkai.
The GHAV was noteworthy for being the only helicopter unit within UNOCI having the capability to fly night sorties using night vision goggles (NVG). The Ghanaian aircrews used third-generation NVG binoculars for such missions.
Due to the elevated threat environment, all GHAV aircraft were armed. In the case of the Mi-17V5s and Mi-171Sh, a pair of cabin-mounted Denel SS77 7.62mm light machine-guns was always fitted.
In March 2011, when the Ivorian electoral crisis reached its apex and made ground movement almost impossible in Abidjan, the GHAV was tasked with participating in a helicopter air bridge between UNOCI’s headquarters at Hotel Sebroko, the Golf Hotel, which served as HQ for the elected President Alassane Ouattara, and Felix Houphouet-Boigny International Airport.
Mensah-Larkai said: “GHAV detached a helicopter to the UN mission headquarters at Sebroko in Abidjan. This helped evacuate a lot of foreign nationals from a bloody massacre that ensued during the peak of the crisis, when all other operators refused to fly.
“The support of the UN [to the then newly elected Ouattara government] was only made possible thanks to the air bridge established by the UN with GHAV as the lead aviation unit. This logistical link supplied most of the crucial assistance needed by President Ouattara’s government.”
The situation at the time was extremely tense and the danger to UN aircraft and personnel at its highest point in years. This made for some very dangerous flying operations, as Mensah-Larkai further highlighted: “The risk assessment made on March 21 2011 indicated the presence of anti-aircraft weapons at strategic locations of the adversaries [armed supporters of former President Laurent Gbagbo].
“A civilian helicopter was hit in the skies above Golf Hotel by suspected machine gun fire, causing it to make an emergency landing.
“In a similar incident, one of GHAV’s Mi-17 helicopters was hit by a bullet on approach to landing, missing the fuel tank by inches.”
Medevac and logistics flights were also high on the GHAV’s agenda at the time. “Appalling episodes of more 100 badly wounded combatants who needed urgent medevac from Golf Hotel to the only hospital that would accept them at Sebroko was a daily occurrence,” said Mensah-Larkai
“A mere five-minute flight was all that stood between a casualty and the hospital. Those particular express sorties, which numbered about 35, were normally impromptu, leaving the cabin stained with blood.”
Cargo resupply was yet another daunting task, with more than 50 tonnes transported daily during the peak of the crisis. Routine and impromptu reconnaissance flights were interspersed with VIP and passenger airlift of stranded nationals, who needed to leave the country urgently.
“Air traffic controllers at the Abidjan Tower, with the earlier declaration that all UNOCI elements leave the country, refused to communicate with the crew. Some obnoxiously played music on their designated frequencies to ward off the helicopter flights,” said Mensah-Larkai.
Other notable operations involving the GHAV included the conduct of night flying surveillance operations over the town of Bouna, in the far north of Côte d’Ivoire in March 2016 in the midst of a series of deadly confrontations between cattle breeders and farmers.
Up to its last days of operations, GHAV flew operationally, as Mensah-Larkai detailed: “In January 2017, soldiers in Ivory Coast organised a mutiny over unpaid salary arrears. Due to this, the main entry and exit points to the central city of Bouake were blocked amidst mass protests.
GHAV was heavily relied on by UNOCI force headquarters to provide timely situation reports, detailed aerial images, show-of-force flights, prompt response for aerial reconnaissance above Bouake and the Korhogo to Ferkessédougou axis. It also performed troop insertion and logistics resupply flights for Senegalese battalion troops after they were inserted into Bouake to protect UN installations.”
Indeed, the GHAV worked closely with the Senegalese troops under UNOCI. During the constitutional referendum, which took place between October and December 2016, the GHAV deployed its two aircraft to Yamoussoukro alongside Senegalese battalion troops to provide a rapid response force in case of crisis.
Between August 2006 and January 2017, GHAV flew a total of more than 11,181 hours in the course of 3,292 missions.
The deployment with UNOCI provided the GAF with significant experience in UN aviation mission procedures and in the field of multinational interoperability.
Mensah-Larkai said: “GHAV served as a cradle of on-the-job leadership training for most young leaders in the Ghana Air Force today. These leaders gained invaluable experience that has been beneficial to the Ghana Air Force, in particular, and the armed forces as a whole. The operations in Cote d’Ivoire also afforded the GAF the opportunity to enhance its image globally as a nation that supports peace efforts and has currently deployed a fixed-wing aviation unit to Mali.”
While, at present, Ghana has not made any commitment for the deployment of a helicopter unit to a new UN operation, the GAF stands ready to consider any request on the matter.

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