A Snowbird in Hell

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Above, Tery Lebel (SB10) and Jody McKinnon (SB11) both Snowbird Co-ordinator pilots stand on a sunny beach to narrate the performance of the team during the 2006 season. Photo DND

Dave O'Malley, a long time friend, asked me to write an article for you about the Afghan experience and how it compares to my time with The Snowbirds. Blame him for what follows.

I was lucky enough to be part of The Snowbirds for the 05-06 seasons. I was Snowbird 10, team co-ordinator. During this time, and since, I have heard the term "life of the rock star" bandied about. Images of convertibles filled with starlets in expensive shoes fill the mind, casks of rare champagne flowing in every 5-star hotel room, room service and late sleep-ins for all. All kidding aside, rarely do we think of the 6 months away from home or finding yourself  in a steamy laundromat polishing your boots at 0700 hrs because you have a show that afternoon. The Team has a saying "Every night's a Friday and every morning’s a Monday" and every Monday morning you better have behaved on Friday night ! I'm not looking for sympathy, it's in the dictionary and I know where to find it. There were fantastic times and I met phenomenal people. Being introduced in Parliament certainly stands out as something that would never have happened to me otherwise. Believe me, everything you can imagine about being a Snowbird is true and all of it is paid for in hard work and dedication. I would jump at the chance to do it all again, rock star or not.

Tery Lebel, far left, poses with the team aircraft, the Canadair CT-114 Tutor and newly-selected pilots and mechanics for the 2005 Snowbirds season. Photo DND

Now I'm in Afghanistan. And as for Rock Stars... there are lots of rocks and the stars certainly are bright in the desert night. Allow me to introduce you to Kandahar Air Field  (KAF). We are nestled in the scenic Arghandab Valley some 15 km from the bustling metropolis of Kandahar. This separates us from our families by about 9 1/2 hours if you use Borden, Ontario as the yardstick. The population of the camp is approximately 25,000 souls from some 20 odd countries. When we arrived the daytime highs were in the 50s (Celsius). Things have calmed down to low 10s by day and zero-ish at night. The rains have started which has thankfully kept the choking dust clouds down. Thankfully until the place turns into a quagmire in January when the rains kick in hard for a month.    

My "5-star hotel" is a little less than two meter by three meter space in a tent. They call them "weather havens" but the walls are canvas and they flap loudly when the wind blows. So... to us they are tents. There are 8 of us sharing this one. One of us, who will remain nameless, brought a nasty cold with him and it has been haunting the tent ever since. Our contingent, TUAV Roto 6, are all housed in these as are the newly arrived members of the Chinook and incoming Griffon Squadron.

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Welcome to Weather Haven, Kandahar Air Field - a "weather haven" suburb to planners... a dusty compound of miserable tents to the thousands of Canadians living in them. Photo via Tery Lebel


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While every attempt is made to normalize life in Kandahar, life is not at all like the streets of Ottawa - the signs are everywhere.  Photo via Tery Lebel

There are three large messes on base to feed all these hungry mouths. The food is plentiful and once in a while the cooks really outdo themselves and add some flavour. Three times a week, the long supply chain permitting, we get something they call ice cream. Good thing they told me what it was.

We are quite modern here with our own water re-cycling facility. I succeeded in describing the smell once but I won't put you through that here. We have hot and cold running showers, 100 meters up the gravel path. By the way that's hot and cold at the same time. No complaints about the toilets though they are pumped out twice a day, most days. The camp also boasts an American PX stocked with all the amenities from home until you need it. That long supply chain again.

Timmy’s  [Tim Hortons - a Canadian coffee and donut shop chain - verging on a cultural icon - Ed.]  is here and doing gangbuster business. Sincere kudos to the staff that always have a smile for everyone who walks through the door.

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Canadian soldiers line up to buy coffee and donuts at the Tim Horton’s in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The staff there have all volunteered for the duty because they are committed to the well-being of our Canadian troops. Photo by Sgt Roxanne Clowe, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

I’ll touch briefly on the subject of alcohol. We have beer here and wine for that matter. We are entitled to two beers per person per day. We’ve been here three months and we’ve had one such day. I believe the next is planned for Christmas.

This may sound bleak to some of you but this is my 4th tour and to me, this is the true life of the rock star. Just like the Snowbirds Team though there is a price to pay for all this luxury. In our case it is Mother Nature on the one hand with heat, cold, wind, rain, dust, sand storms, spiders, scorpions and snakes, and on the other hand is the enemy.

The enemy introduced himself to us early on. In our first 12 days in camp we received his attention in the form of 9 rocket attacks. They have diminished since but the siren still blares on a regular basis. To my knowledge there have been no deaths attributed to this tactic but there have been some severely wounded. No Canadians have been hurt to date.
It might be a little pragmatic of me but I figure one of three things can happen. I can be killed outright which wouldn't hurt, they can miss me which doesn't hurt or I can be wounded. That's 66% in my favour, pretty good odds. I'm not kidding about this simple arithmetic, you have to make sense of it somehow.

I sincerely wish you all the best and great enjoyment from this article but I have to take a moment to mention another little truth from here. My wife and family know nothing of the last two paragraphs. I would appreciate it if it stayed that way at least until I got home. Some things you do keep from the ones you love.

Of course all the math in the world can't change or lessen what happened a few weeks ago (5 Dec ). The details are classified and even if they weren't, I'm not ready to get into that. Touching back on the rock star theme, the Snowbirds lost one pilot and three aircraft during my time with them. There is always a price to pay.

As for our employment here, I am a Mission Commander (MC) on the Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle ( TUAV ). Our vehicle is the French built Sperwer, powered by a Rotax engine and about the size of a pool table. Some days you’d think it was one. As MC I am responsible for the planning and execution of missions. I have 2 crewmen to help me in this endeavour and none of them have aircrew backgrounds. With the exception of the Intelligence guys and one lonely maintainer they are all drawn from the ranks of 4th Air Defence Regiment, 128 Battery of the Royal Canadian Artillery. Fantastic guys to work with!

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Captain Tery Lebel, former Snowbird 10, and now Mission Controller on a three-man TUAV team, poses with the Sperwer tactical unmanned aerial vehicle at the Kandahar airport. Photo via Tery Lebel

Each crew has an MC, an Air Vehicle Operator (AVO), a Payload Operator (PO) and an Image Analyst (IA). The AVO does the driving, the PO operates the camera and the IA helps define what it is we are looking at. My job at this point is to play Captain James Kirk...  "Sulu take me there" or , "Uhura show me this"... , "Spock what do you think?".

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Bombardier Jean-Francois Paré (far left), a member of the artillery flies the CU-161 Sperwer, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), from a mobile ground control station while Bombardier Karin Khoudja (foreground) operates the Sperwer’s high-tech camera. Captain Clay Rook (far right) is a Canadian Forces pilot like Tery Lebel and as the UAV mission commander, is responsible for planning the flights, ensuring that the airspace and fire support measures are clear and supervises the ground control station activities. The CU-161 Sperwer is sent deep into hostile territory where it would be extremely dangerous to send a helicopter.  Photo by Sergeant Carole Morissette, Task Force Afghanistan Roto 1, Imagery Technician

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An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) descends within the vicinity of Kandahar Airfield after conducting a mission early July 6 2006. Photo by MCpl Robert Bottrill, Canadian Forces Combat Camera.

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Master Bombardier (MBdr) Patrick Moreau (left) and Bombardier (Bdr) Steve Michaud-Hébert recover the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) after descending from a mission out of Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. Air bags are deployed under the wings to cushion the landing.  MBdr Moreau and Bdr Michaud-Hébert are part of the 5e Régiment d’artillerie Légère Du Canada, from Valcartier, Quebec, which operates the UAV - instrumental in providing valuable information to the Commanders and troops on the ground. Photo by MCpl Robert Bottrill, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

What we do can be summed up in two words, Shield and Strike. We exist to protect our troops by gathering information on the enemy’s movements and whereabouts, thereby denying the enemy room to manoeuvre and depriving him of the element of surprise. If the enemy doesn’t take the hint then we move to the Strike phase. This is when we call in “Higher Means”. We have tanks, artillery, fast air, AH, Predator, Reaper, and even Bones (Rockwell B-1 Lancer bombers) available to ensure the enemy takes the hint to heart, literally.

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Tery poses with the Taliban Persuader - the much larger Predator unmanned aerial vehicle and a laser guided munition - prior to a mission launch. Photo via Tery Lebel

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A lot of the mission work in the TUAV and UAV teams is done under the cover of darkness. Here, the same RAF Predator as in the previous photo is set to deliver its package. Photo via Tery Lebel

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Soon he will be on leave... the signs of Tery's need for a rest are in his eyes - Ed. Photo via Tery Lebel

We do have one secret weapon that I will let you in on. We try to fly in the lower levels, say two to three thousand feet. With the Rotax spinning its brains out we are fairly noisy. Experience has shown that when the enemy can hear us they disappear back under their rocks. It may not be much but it does provide a deserved break for the troops. Perhaps only time for a hot meal or some sleep but it’s something. If that is the sum total of what we accomplish here during our six months, keeping the Bad Guys away from our troops, I’ll still go home a happy man.

While it’s true that we are separated by distance from the hard action, we are inextricably a part of it through the electronic eye of our cameras. On a scale of one to ten, the top tier belongs to the troops in the field who live it daily. I’d say we are a solid seven. Just try to watch and listen, even from a distance, and not be involved.

Is there a parallel between what we do here and what I did as a Snowbird ? Of course there is. There is no autograph line full of eager school children and I have already touched on our five-star accommodations but have a quick read of the Snowbirds mandate: skill, professionalism, teamwork. Need I say more ?

Dave, thanks for asking me to write this. I’ve had some fun and been a little tongue in cheek but laughs are sometimes rare here. Except when Gerry and Roxanne go to it, they are both Newfies and when they get going it’s a riot.

Life of the rock star, not really, but worthwhile ? Oh yes.

Post Script

Today is the 13th of December. I’ve been holding on to this article a few days to fine tune it and see if there was anything I wanted to add. Unfortunately there is.

This morning while returning to their base an RG-31 of the Provincial Reconstruction Team ( PRT ) was destroyed by an Improvised Explosive Device ( IED ). Three Canadians were killed and one was badly wounded. Whatever parallels I was able to draw between my time with the Snowbirds and this mission still stand. They are both deadly serious endeavours that must be treated with utmost respect. They both demand the highest levels of professionalism, skill and teamwork. The glaring difference is the presence of an armed and determined enemy. Whereas skill, professionalism and teamwork will keep you alive in the Snowbirds, over here, it also takes the Grace of God.

No crowds, no cheering, no autograph lines. [since December 13th, there have been several more Canadian Heros laid to rest in their home towns in Canada - a terrible price - Ed]

 by Captain Tery Lebel

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Like Lebel's predecessors in other wars on other continents, men have always longed to be home and made their lonely stay at Christmas time a bit more bearable by constructing a unit Christmas tree. Kandahar was no different. Photo via Tery Lebel

A word or two about Tery

I have known Tery Lebel (Who I call "Raoul" - long story) now for nearly 20 years. He is one of the kindest men you will ever meet. He is also the consummate pilot, a gifted man with a stick in his hands. Flying NOE (Nap of the Earth) with Tery in a Kiowa helicopter in the bright, sharp sunlight of a Gatineau winter is an experience one won't soon forget. .

One of my earliest vintage aircraft experiences was with Tery in the hills north of our Gatineau hangar. We were flying a de Havilland Tiger Moth - Tery the pilot, me the Toilet Paper Deployment Commander (TPDC). While Tery did lovely chandelles and wing-overs, I tossed rolls of toilet paper from the cockpit. Flying back and forth, Tery chased the long tails of paper shredding them with his propeller.  This was our "air show act" for the 1991 National Capital Air Show coming up that weekend. After practice, we headed into Ottawa NORDO in what was a scene very reminiscent of the 1940s - winding our way up the Rideau River as pre-arranged, following the same route so many students used to find their way 50 years before. Everything was very nostalgic until we parked next to an F-117 Nighthawk Stealth "fighter" - our bright yellow wings and wires contrasting sharply with the ugly geometry of the black jet next to us.  A guard with an M-16 looked us over very carefully.

As I write this Post Script, Tery is relaxing with his bride Patti on the Mexican Riviera. A beautiful woman, sparkling sunlight, a boat drink in your hand and the blue Caribbean water go along way to putting the Taliban out of your mind. 

Ed

Chercher
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