The life of a CF-18 Pilot in the fight against the Islamic State
By Jason McNaught
On September 19, Canada received a direct request from the United States government for additional military support against the Islamic State, and by October 30 two CF-18 Hornets had conducted their first missions in support for MESF, the Middle East Stabilization Force.
As of March 14, Canada’s six CF-18s, based in Kuwait, have conducted 408 sorties, striking IS staging areas, fighting positions, ammunition caches and various pieces of equipment used to facilitate the militant group’s expansion throughout Iraq.
Our news is clogged with reports of the Islamic State’s latest atrocities, but little is known about the Canadian pilots that are now working to prevent them, or what life is like on the Kuwaiti base they’re currently working out of.
Esprit de Corps decided to find out. The following is our interview with a Canadian CF-18 pilot stationed in Kuwait. For security reasons, the identity of the pilot was not revealed.
ON SLEEPING, EATING AND WORKING IN CAMP VINCENT…
EdeC: Do you provide your own security on the base?
RCAF Pilot: We brought some of our own personnel, but overall it is a coalition effort. We are a coalition base, so it is a joint protection effort between everybody.
EdeC: What are the accommodations like at Camp Vincent?
RCAF Pilot: There is a wide spectrum, actually. The camp where we are at was not originally built for the number of people that are currently here. There is a mixture of types of rooms. It’s organized by rank. The higher ranks have two to a room and we have several 10-person tents set up. They are quite nice as tents go, but they are tents — with bunk beds — because they have had to very quickly create a lot of extra housing space for coalition people that came into this location. We also have some temporary, portable buildings. There is air conditioning in all of them, thankfully.
EdeC: Who makes the food?
RCAF Pilot: Coalition effort. A lot of the stuff common to the base is coalition-run. There is a contractor. I personally don’t know the details of that.
EdeC: How is it?
RCAF Pilot: It’s pretty good. There’s a lot of it, which is nice. People are never lacking food if they are hungry. It’s not gourmet dining, but it’s fine.
EdeC: Do you have a gym?
RCAF Pilot: Yes. Again, it’s a coalition effort. There is a fairly nice gym, with a good selection of equipment. It’s slightly old and a little bit worn, but it’s a good size. There are people working 24-7 so it’s always busy. We also have a lot of other activities. For example, the base coalition has a pick-up ball hockey game and pick-up basketball game on a fairly regular basis. There is a lot of sand, so there are also a couple of beach volleyball courts...
EdeC: Do you get the chance to get off the base once in awhile?
RCAF Pilot: We are pretty isolated. We can’t just walk off the base and go somewhere, and we are also very busy. We don’t have the downtime where you typically have two days off and can go somewhere. There is also the question of resources. We don’t have enough vehicles where everyone could just take a car and go away for a day. The primary thing is that we are just working very hard. We are very busy and there is no local facilities around for us to go and visit.
EdeC: Is the camp dry?
RCAF Pilot: Yes it is.
EdeC: What is the R&R cycle like?
RCAF Pilot: Off the top of my head I am not sure of the exact length, but the people that I know who have been here, for example, for six months, they do get a vacation where they can go back home for two or three weeks … or go on vacation somewhere other than home if that is what they choose to do.
EdeC: Is it easy to stay in touch with friends and family back home?
RCAF Pilot: We do have fairly good connections back home. We have personal use internet, and a Canada house social building with Wifi. That helps a lot with keeping in touch back home. There are phones that people can use there, obviously. People can Skype or Facetime as well. That allows more regular and personal contact back home than in the past, which is very nice. It helps morale.
ON FLYING, FIGHTING, AND FEAR IN IRAQ…
EdeC: How many sorties have you flown so far?
RCAF Pilot: I am early on in my rotation, so I have flown six missions so far. We rotate the pilots on a fairly regular basis, for reasons of proficiency, giving exposure to multiple pilots in theatre, and currency requirements. We have to do certain currency requirements with flying on a regular basis and we can’t do those in theatre, so we have to rotate back. We have to go home on a fairly regular basis to keep current on various things.
EdeC: Do you know when you’ll be flying?
RCAF Pilot: We generally know a few days in advance. We usually work about three to four days in advance, but stuff does change, and it can change on short notice. We have a rough idea, which gets solidified into a more concrete plan about 24hirs in advance. Our work typically starts on the day prior, when we get the tasking from command centres. After that, we start putting together our plan for the mission the next day. It takes about an hour of work to put together our mission materials: what we are going to take flying, our routing plan, how we are going to go where we are going, and who we are going to talk to when we get there.
EdeC: Do you find that you are well prepared for your missions?
RCAF Pilot: Yes I do. Even before this campaign started, we were always training and working at the operational squadrons towards all kinds of different potential types of air operations. When the operation here started to spool up, we focused and narrowed our training to get ready for this type of mission. So I would say ‘Yes.’ We are very confident in the training and preparation that we have done prior to arriving here, and then all the work that we do as we arrive here, coming into theatre as pilots. We have in-briefings, we get briefings from previous pilots and handover information. The first mission that you fly, you have already gone through everything you are going to do on that mission. It’s not like it is brand new and you are taking off into the unknown. You have a fairly good idea about what’s going on, where you are going to be, and how you are going to be doing things. That’s the whole point of how we train as pilots in the Canadian Forces — so we come to an operational place like this and fly a mission like we do it back home. It just flows naturally from our training.
EdeC: What is a typical sortie look like?
RCAF Pilot: We typically fly about two to three times a week. It depends on the exact schedule. Depending on where we are going for the area of operations, it will take between an hour, maybe two hours, to get where we are going. Once we are there, we will be on station and conduct the mission we have been asked to, whether that is reconnaissance, monitoring friendly positions to support them, looking at potential suspicious activity or striking various targets. We will do that for anywhere between 2-4 hours over the area of operations, and then we will typically fly back home again depending on where we were. Usually this takes one to two hours or so flying back home.
EdeC: How often do you need to refuel in the air?
RCAF Pilot: A lot. There are a lot of coalition air-to-air refuelling assets from multiple countries, including our own. We do have the airbus here that refuels us and all the other coalition fighter aircraft. But it all comes down from the command centre, and it is very well orchestrated. We hit multiple tankers multiple times because we have to refuel several times for these six, seven, eight-hour missions. Then when we come back home and land, it’s another usually one to two hours of looking over our flight footage and debriefing. Overall, it’s a fairly busy day… and at the end of it you are quite tired.
EdeC: Our CF-18s are getting a lot of use over there. How is the maintenance handled?
RCAF Pilot: Our maintenance crews are working very hard, and doing an amazing job with the aircraft that we have here keeping enough serviceable that we are not missing any missions due to maintenance issues. We are flying missions, especially as a coalition, around the clock, so there are maintainers working on the aircraft, if required, 24-7. They have broken it down into shifts, same as the pilots.
EdeC: When you are flying over IS-held territory, can you get a sense of the level of destruction they have caused on the ground?
RCAF Pilot: A lot of the smaller villages, you can tell that there is not that much activity in them. I would imagine a lot of your average civilians have vacated the areas in a lot of these places that are contested. But of the larger centres, the larger towns and cities, there is still activity in them. I can’t really speak as to comparing it now like it was before — I wasn’t here — but areas that are contested, you will see damage, but it’s not like entire villages have been destroyed or wiped off the map or anything. Not like that.
EdeC: What kind of resistance could you face from the ground?
RCAF Pilot: There are some concerns, and they do have weaponry. The sophistication level varies; they are not a nation-state with its own defence system. We know what their systems are capable of, so we make sure that we fly our missions in an envelope of altitude where they are not effective.
EdeC: You would know as well as anyone that your job is not risk free. Did the Jordanian pilot’s death resonate amongst Canadian fighter pilots?
RCAF Pilot: We all knew before coming over here that is the nature of some of the operations that we are doing. Even if they were to shoot at us, we know how to react, how to defend, how to survive and get away so that we can come home and land at our home base. We are very confident in the system, in the training that we have had, and in the coalition efforts that would happen if that situation were to happen again.
EdeC: But… being burned alive? That must have elicited an emotional response…
RCAF Pilot: It was very shocking and it does demonstrate that ISIS is demonstratably evil. They are doing horrible things. It is something that we note and we are aware of, but we are very well prepared and we know the areas where they are and where they are not. That nature of our missions — of where we are going to be going, how we are going to be operating — that risk is mitigated and it’s not a concern for us where, and how, we are flying our missions.