|Benin Bound Belgians|
Since many decades, Belgium has close historic and economic ties with a number of Central-African countries, mainly Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. During these years, its military has established an invaluable expertise in African conflict management and deployments in tropical regions. Because of the problems in Rwanda in 1994 and the instability of the regimes in many of neighbouring countries, Belgium started looking for a new pied-ŗ-terre in an African country with a stable government an not too far from its former colonies. The West-African country Benin, the former Kingdom of Dahomey and French colony, has been a preferential partner of Belgian Development Cooperation since the 1970s and had a democratically elected regime since 1990, making it a suitable candidate to fulfil this role. On 18 October 1999, Belgium and Benin signed an agreement for military cooperation with training, combined exercises and military and development assistance as main pillars. In the framework of this agreement, Belgium and Benin hold a large-scale combined military exercise every two years.
On 17 November 2006, two Agusta A.109BA Hirundo multi-role helicopters (serial numbers H20 and H45) of the Belgian Air Component Wing Heli were loaded into an Antonov An-124-100 Ruslan transport aircraft at their home base in Bierset, near LiŤge. The aircraft was leased in the framework of the SALIS (Strategic Airlift Interim Solution) programme, which Belgium joined on 31 March 2006 with 15 other NATO member states to cope with the shortfall of strategic transport aircraft in many European countries. This interim solution should help Belgium fulfil its strategic transport needs to the Balkans, the Middle East, Central-Asia and Africa until at least 2018, when the first deliveries of the ordered Airbus A-400M heavy transport aircraft are scheduled to start. The helicopters and their support equipment arrived at Cotonou International Airport in the early morning of 19 November 2007. A 17-strong team of pilots and maintenance and support personnel started to prepare the helicopters that same day. Both machines were operational by the next day. After a number of familiarisation flights, the detachment started its tasks in the framework of Operation BENHELI on 25 November 2006.
The main objective of Operation BENHELI was to support the Benin government in the preparation of the purchase of a pair of Belgian A.109BA helicopters to fulfil the existing and known requirement for local presidential transport duties. A secondary objective was to offer Hirundo pilots an opportunity to gain low-level tactical and night flying experience over a rather flat tropical country lacking the traditional identifying marks typical of a built-up European type landscape. Operation BENHELI caused some turmoil in Belgian national politics, as it was feared that Belgian military helicopters flying around President Thomas Yayi Boni and his entourage to remote areas of the country in support of local candidates for the 2007 legislative elections might give the impression of an official Belgian preference for the presidentís party. To this added a report by the aircrews stating that pressure put on crews and helicopters by the presidential entourage was jeopardizing flight safety. All this led to a temporary discontinuation of the presidential flights.
In the meantime, a third Hirundo (serial number H05) was transported to Benin by sea. The three helicopters were to fly in support of this yearís large biennial combined exercise ALIBORI 2007. The exercise was named after the most northern department of the country, where the major part of the training would take place from 7 to 28 April 2007. Around 170 Belgian and 400 Beninese military participated in the deployment, which implicated in large measure airborne troops. Around 25 instructors of the Parachutist Training Centre in Schaffen, Belgium, trained 100 new paratroopers of the Beninese Army, while another 60 went through a refresher course to retain proficiency. An official ceremony was held in the honour of the first class of Belgian trained Beninese parachutists at Kana Air Base on 26 April 2007.
In the margin of Exercise ALIBORI 2007, it was revealed that early April a contract was signed between Belgium and Benin for the sale of five Agusta A.109BA helicopters (4 flyable Hirundo's and one aircraft as spare parts source and technical training airframe) for a total of 2.5 million euro. This deal legitimises the prolongation of BENHELI with a year, during which pilots and technicians will be trained, partially in Belgium and partially in Benin. The first two helicopters destined for Benin are H04 and H32. The latter could be seen at Bierset Air Base early May being prepared for hand-over to Benin by the 255th Maintenance Group of the Wing Heli, the former 225th Maintenance Company. The helicopters for Benin are completely stripped of all their military equipment and accompanying avionics. The most conspicuous external features are the removal of the SAAB Helios observation and TOW missile firing system from the roof of the cockpit as well as that of the radar warning receiver aerials from nose and tail and the chaff and flare dispensers from the lower mid-fuselage. An external addition is the small white oval GPS aerial on the helicopterís nose. This aerial is part of the Garmin 100 GPS, recovered from Alouette II helicopters withdrawn from use to replace the original GPS of the Hirundo containing restricted NATO codes. With the accompanying avionics of this military equipment removed, the cockpit now more or less resembles that of a civil A.109, except for a number of double flight avionics typical for a double crew piloted military Hirundo.
A.109BA with serial number H17 has been used as a prototype to test and evaluate the removal procedures of redundant military equipment and wiring. This airframe, in need for a major overhaul, has been stored for some time at Zutendaalís Wevelsmoer barracks in the framework of the Hirundo fleet reduction as part of the Strategic Plan for the Modernisation of the Armed Forces, decided upon by the Belgian government on 12 May 2000. It is at present in cocooned storage at Bierset Air Base and will serve to train the first Beninese technicians on the type. H17 is the fifth airframe involved in the sale and will eventually go to Benin as a source of spare parts.
H04 and H32 will be used in Belgium in 2007 for type conversion of the first two Beninese pilots, who recently arrived at Bierset Air Base. They are experienced helicopter pilots, a colonel and a lieutenant colonel, and already flew Alouette III and Ecureuil. Two additional pilots are at present following basic helicopter flying training in Morocco and will receive type conversion later this year or in 2008. Some training will take place in the framework of Operation BENHELI. The first technical personnel also has arrived from Benin for training in Belgium.
Two more not yet identified helicopters will be demilitarised and transferred to Benin in 2008. The original plans called for the purchase of only two helicopters, but this figure has been raised to four as some of the helicopters will be used to develop and support the countryís tourist sector, as stated by one of the Beninese pilots present at the Belgian Helidays 2007. Especially the northern part of the country holds many trumps in this context with its hills and mountains, waterfalls and natural reserves.
Agusta A109BA Hirundo H32 is at present being prepared by the Belgian Air Component Wing Heli to be ready for training of the first Beninese pilots on the type at Bierset Air Base in the course of 2007.
The cockpit of the A.109s destined for Benin is completely demilitarised and resembles that of a civil version of the type. Note the many empty spots, especially in the left-hand side of the cockpit. The Garmin 100 GPS can be seen on the reinforced anti-glare panel on top of the dashboard.
Hirundo H17 will be stripped of its cocoon as soon as the first Beninese technicians to be trained on the type will arrive at Bierset Air Base.
Agusta A.109BA H04, the second helicopter destined for Benin, was present in the medevac role at Bierset Air Base during the Belgian Helidays 2007. Work on demilitarisation of the helicopter started shortly after this event.
Agusta A.109BA Hirundo H31 on a transport trolley, devoid of its main rotor and landing gear, is awaiting its turn to be shipped to Benin to replace another helicopter in need for heavy maintenance. H05, which is already in Benin, and this H31 will replace H20 and H45 in the framework of Operation BENHELI. The latter two will return to Belgium for maintenance. H31 is the flagship of No. 18 Squadron Multirole Helicopters and carries the unitís Greek Warrior badge on vertical stabilizer and cabin doors.
The national badge of Benin as worn by the two Beninese military pilots residing at present at Bierset Air Base for type conversion on the Agusta A.109BA Hirundo.
See also BAHA News of 23/04/2007 here.
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Text and pictures by
© Jos Schoofs (May 2007)
Last updated 23/05/07 08:17 Daniel Brackx