In March 2009 our three helicopters arrived at the military base in Afghanistan via one gigantic cargo plane — a Russian Antonov AN-124.
Even though we had cautioned our military contacts on site that we would need a crane and forklift to unload our equipment, we ended up offloading the aircraft and spare parts ourselves with a small John Deere tractor that we had purchased in Canada and sent over on the plane.
Cargo aircraft require a PPR, which stands for Prior Permission Required, to land at any military base due to the constraints on parking spaces. They are granted a space for a designated period of time — usually between one and four hours. We had to hustle to get all our stuff off in time.
Our cargo was to be offloaded on a huge concrete pad called Golf Hammerhead, an area very near to where we had been given permission to park our helicopters until we had all the proper authorization to depart to our assigned FOB — Forward Operating Base.
Naturally, Golf Hammerhead was closed when the Antonov arrived, so our machines ended up at the far end of the runway, which required us to tow them two miles or so to where we could park them overnight.
Welcome to Afghanistan! Nothing is easy here, especially for a bunch of civilian pilots and engineers who didn’t, and still don’t at times, understand the military way of doing things.
We had been awarded a contract to transport personnel, cargo and US Mail in one of the most dangerous places on earth. And we were happy to be there! A bit confused, but happy. Now that our machines had arrived, it seemed as though we truly were living the dream!
When we finally flew to our FOB we contacted Air Traffic Control just as we would in Canada, using our civil registration as our call sign — Charlie Foxtrot Alpha Brava Charlie, for example, which stands for C-FABC. All Canadian aircraft are registered either C-Fxxx or C-Gxxx.
Of course, that’s quite a mouthful when you come and go from an airport about eight or nine times a day. And the local Air Traffic Controllers arranged a meeting to discuss that very issue. You see, in the military everything has a code name and/or acronym. We work in an AO—Area of Operations. We’re part of the OEF — Operation Enduring Freedom. We have a POC, a Point of Contact, and the soldiers don’t wear uniforms, they wear an ACU — Army Combat Uniform. Every Aviation Unit had a code name to use when they call ATC, and we were going to be the same.
Of course, we hadn’t thought of any cool code names — “Maverick” and “Goose” came to mind, but we didn’t verbalize that. The American controllers suggested something Canadian, like Canadian Club. But we found that too difficult to say, too many syllables. The Russian contractors were known as Absolute, after a vodka. We would soon begin calling them “Crazy Ivans”, but that’s another story.
We needed something simple and snappy, and obviously alcohol related. And the only other thing the American controllers knew about was Molson beer. “What about Molson?” they asked. “Molson,” we said in unison.
And since that day, we’ve been affectionately known as Molson Air—a quintessential Canadian aviation icon in Afghanistan.
All photos © Allan Cram, All rights reserved.