Aviation Support to East Timor

by Captain Steven J. Keller

When helicopter support was needed for the humanitarian mission in East Timor, the LOGCAP contractor turned to an unlikely source for the needed aircraft and crews.

When the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) decided to use the Army's Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP) to provide helicopter lift support in East Timor, its first step was to provide a statement of work defining its requirements to the LOGCAP contractor, DynCorp. DynCorp was tasked to prepare a rough order of magnitude, which is a cost estimate, and a technical execution plan, which is basically a concept of operations, based on those requirements. Once those documents were completed, DynCorp provided them to USPACOM.

The two Mi-26 heavy-lift helicopters flown from Russia and Bulgaria rest on newly constructed helipads in Dili.
The two Mi-26 heavy-lift helicopters flown from Russia and Bulgaria rest on newly constructed helipads in Dili.

DynCorp personnel deployed within 72 hours of receiving the notice to proceed and began making arrangements to execute the East Timor mission. First, DynCorp had to identify the most cost-efficient and available subcontractors. DynCorp has several available sources for helicopters, but the challenge was to find a subcontractor that could provide the helicopters needed for this particular operation while meeting the deployment schedule.

DynCorp evaluated criteria such as cost, capabilities, schedule, and reliability when negotiating with companies that could meet the lift requirements and schedule outlined in the statement of work. Many lift options and companies were considered, but ultimately DynCorp and USPACOM agreed that Clintondale Aviation would join the LOGCAP team and provide the helicopters and crews for the mission. Under the aviation subcontract, two Mi-8 medium-lift and two Mi-26 heavy-lift helicopters with associated air and maintenance crews would furnish the desperately needed lift support. This was the best option, but it presented some unusual challenges because the aircraft and crews chosen were located in Bulgaria, Russia, and Slovakia.

Identifying the Aircraft

During the process of preparing the rough order of magnitude, DynCorp tentatively identified aircraft for the operation. But because of the immediate and critical nature of the mission, DynCorp had to ensure that the aircraft could meet USPACOM's schedule. A DynCorp representative knowledgeable about aircraft traveled to Russia, Slovakia, and Bulgaria with Clintondale personnel to inspect each helicopter. He verified each aircraft by tail number, checked maintenance records, and assisted in coordinating the routes the helicopters would fly. These on-site inspections ensured that DynCorp did not lease any aircraft that would require a major maintenance phase, which would severely impact the mission's schedule.

International Efforts

The DynCorp representative assisted in coordinating with the Russian Embassy in Washington and other agencies to allow the use of the helicopters in East Timor, which otherwise would have been against current Russian policy. The Russian Government had released a policy on 1 November 1999 that recommended that Russian helicopters and crews not perform support work in the area of East Timor. Adhering to this policy, Russian aviation authorities initially did not approve the flight plans for the Russian-based helicopters DynCorp sought.

Subsequently, several letters were sent to the Russian and Indonesian Embassies requesting authorization for these specific aircraft to support humanitarian aid efforts in East Timor. The combined efforts of DynCorp, the Army Materiel Command (AMC) contracting officer, and other U.S. Government officials were successful, and visas were issued to the crews to perform work in the region. East Timor had no visa entrance requirement, but the Russian crews still were required to have visas before they could depart from Russia legally. DynCorp coordination with USPACOM and the commander of U.S. Forces INTERFET (International Forces East Timor) resulted in the issue of invitational travel orders for each crewmember. The Russian Government recognized the invitational orders, and the crews were allowed to support the mission in East Timor.

Delivering the Mi-26 Helicopters

Receiving permission to use Russian helicopters and crews in East Timor was just the first hurdle. The next was coordinating flight plans for the long journey. The Mi-26 "Halo" is the largest helicopter in the world, almost as large as a C-130 Hercules cargo plane, and it can haul just about as much cargo. This huge helicopter has a fuel capacity of over 3,000 gallons and burns about 1,000 gallons an hour.

The initial deployment plan was to fly the two Mi-26's from Krasnadar, Russia, and Bratislava, Slovakia, to a seaport, where they would be transported by ship to Dili, the capital of East Timor. Until the Mi-26's arrived, the plan called for using commercially owned CH-47 Chinook helicopters to provide the lift required by INTERFET. However, the cost of the CH-47 option proved prohibitive, so the decision was made to fly the Mi-26's all the way to Dili—a distance of over 11,000 miles. The aircraft would fly from Krasnadar and Bratislava, link up in Cairo, Egypt (approximately 1,400 miles from their origins), and then transit another 9,500 miles across Saudi Arabia, Oman, India, Thailand, and Indonesia before finally arriving in East Timor.

One of the Mi-8 medium-lift helicopters sits on the runway while the other is removed from an AN-124 transport.
One of the Mi-8 medium-lift helicopters sits on the runway while the other is removed from an AN-124 transport.

Clearance Troubles

Another DynCorp subcontractor, Universal Weather and Aviation, Inc., coordinated all overflight and landing privileges for the helicopters' journey. Delays encountered in receiving clearances from Saudi Arabia and India added 7 days to the flights. When overflight and landing privileges were denied by the Saudi Government, DynCorp started working on alternate routes. Fortunately, coordination through the Defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh yielded clearances across Saudi Arabia. The sheer size of the Mi-26 caused problems with clearances in India. An Indian flight rule, effective 1 January 1999, required aircraft with a seating capacity of 35 or more to have collision avoidance systems. The Mi-26, which can hold 85 passengers, did not have these systems. Again, coordination with the Defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi was successful in resolving the problem. The Indian Government granted an exception to the policy, and the aircraft were allowed to proceed on their long journey to East Timor. Including delays, the trip took 16 days.

Delivering the Mi-8 Helicopters

Delivering the Mi-8 helicopters had its own complications. The two aircraft were located in Sophia, Bulgaria, and the most expedient way of delivering them to East Timor was by transport aircraft, specifically a Russian-made AN-124. Initial delays were encountered in getting the AN-124 into Sophia because the airport was closed; airspace restrictions within 150 kilometers of the departure airfield were in place in anticipation of a visit to Bulgaria by President Clinton. Once the airport reopened, the AN-124 was allowed to land and load the two Mi-8's, a fuel truck, spare parts, generators, and crewmembers. The AN-124 then headed for East Timor. The need to rest the crew and the inability of the transport to remain overnight in Bacau, East Timor, because of airfield restrictions forced the AN-124 to stop in Jakarta, Indonesia. When the AN-124 finally arrived at Bacau, the helicopters were unloaded, assembled, and prepared for operations.

Flight Crews and Operations

The helicopter flight crews were Russian and Bulgarian citizens. They were handpicked and highly experienced in international flight operations. Their living conditions in the tropical environment of East Timor would prove challenging for them.

A DynCorp employee joins with a Bulgarian aircrew to offload one of the Mi-8 helicopters.

A DynCorp employee joins with a Bulgarian aircrew to offload one of the Mi-8 helicopters.

An Mi-26 helicopter carries a 10,000-pound forklift destined for another area of East Timor. An Mi-26 helicopter carries a 10,000-pound forklift destined for another area of East Timor.

Typically, international contracted pilots speak adequate English, and the operations managers for these aircraft were fluent in English. The contract specified that at least one crewmember per aircraft speak fluent English. This English requirement surmounted the language barrier to a large degree, but communicating was still troublesome. Once the helicopters and crews closed on East Timor, the crewmembers attended numerous briefings and were oriented to the operational flight areas. This orientation was extremely important because there were no navigational aids on the island.

On 28 November 1999, the Mi-8's were ready to support operations. They were joined by the Mi-26's on 6 December. Teamwork was the key to the successful support missions in East Timor that followed. All assigned missions were completed. There was no cargo load too heavy for the Mi-26's to lift and no village too remote for the Mi-8's to reach. During the 3-month mission, the crews flew over 474 hours without incident and moved approximately 6,500 passengers and 845 tons of cargo.

The contracted use of helicopters in East Timor was a distinct and unique challenge. Many lessons were learned and challenges overcome. DynCorp and the AMC LOGCAP Program Manager's Office proved that they can provide any augmentation that a commander desires anywhere in the world. The East Timor mission raised the awareness among military personnel that contractors can and will be used to perform a variety of functions on the battlefield, overcoming restrictions that arise in today's complex international arena. By having nonmilitary alternatives like LOGCAP, both commanders and diplomats have flexible options that previously were unavailable. The DynCorp team's success in East Timor has established a new model for future contingency operations that need contractor augmentation. ALOG

Captain Steven J. Keller is filling a training-with-industry position with DynCorp Aerospace Technology in Fort Worth, Texas. He is a graduate of the Quartermaster Officer Basic and Advanced Courses and the Combined Arms and Services Staff School and holds a bachelor's degree in aeronautical studies from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.