Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Canada's warehouses on wings

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The C-17 Globemaster looks like an airplane, but it is so enormous -- 300 metric tons fully loaded -- that it seems incredible that its wings can actually lift it off the ground. I boarded one of the monsters on a Canadian military base in Southwest Asia last month on my way home following a tour of Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan.

It's the same rapid transport jet that some critics dismissed as a vanity project when the military made a request for the massive bird about 10 years ago, but world events have vindicated the decision to purchase four C-17s for $1.5 billion. Two of them are lending their weight for the relief effort in Haiti.

From the ground to the tip of its vertical tail wing, the C-17 is nearly as tall as a six-storey building and just as wide, wing tip to wing tip. The cargo compartment resembles an industrial warehouse, with its winches, gears, pulleys and gadgets for loading, storing and securing a variety of payloads, including helicopters and even tanks that weigh several tonnes.

It's not pretty and it's not built for comfort, but it is a model of aeronautic engineering and efficiency. The imposing freighter is handled by a crew of just three -- two pilots in a cockpit located above the cargo bay and a loadmaster who monitors the cargo and other systems.

Buckled into fold-down seats along the bulkhead, backs against the wall, it was impossible to maintain vertical posture as the pilot throttled forward. With 40,500 pounds of thrust in each of its four engines, the warehouse-on-wings accelerates with an ear-splitting roar (even with earplugs) and at a rate of speed that seems improbable, considering the scale and magnitude of the vehicle.

The C-17's cruising speed is 833 km/h, or nearly the speed of sound.

There wasn't much cargo on this journey, so the loadmaster invited our small group of journalists and soldiers to feel free to stretch out on the cold steel floor once we were airborne. We were advised, however, to avoid the rear of the aircraft, in case the cargo door should open for whatever reason. "You'll be sucked right out," he warned.

The compartment can get so cold that ice sometimes appears in the rear, but most of us managed to curl up on the floor with a blanket and get some rest. There's no point trying to talk to anyone, since we were all rendered deaf before liftoff.

The landing at CFB Trenton was as smooth as a baby's bottom, but one of the surprising capabilities of the C-17 is its ability to land on short runways, including rough and uneven ground.

Until the first copy was delivered from American manufacturer Boeing in 2007, Canada had limited airlift capability, which often prevented us from acting independently on the world stage, even when our self-interest and international reputation was at stake.

For example, when Ottawa wanted to deploy its Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to Sri Lanka following the tsunami in 2004, it had to wait several weeks before it could lease strategic airlift from the Russians. A similar delay occurred during a deployment to Haiti in 2003. The air force also had to rent Russian airplanes to move heavy equipment into Afghanistan.

The crisis in Haiti today shows once again why Canada needs the capability to project power around the world without being forced to rely on handouts or rentals. We will always depend on others for help -- just as they will call on us -- but a sovereign nation with global interests must have the capacity to act independently and quickly on some issues.

Canadians have long-standing ties with Haiti -- a relationship deepened by Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean's special connection to the land of her birth -- and it would be humiliating if we were unable to respond to the crisis because we lacked the means.

It's about meeting our responsibilities as a wealthy people with friends, allies and obligations around the world. Canada is sending ships to Haiti, but the navy does not possess adequate sealift capacity and it has been forced in the past to lease heavy transport ships for operations in the Balkans, East Timor and even Afghanistan.

At various times over the years, some Canadians have wondered why we own tanks, fighter jets, frigates, submarines, helicopters, and guns and bombs.

Frankly, I wondered if we needed it all, too, particularly after the fall of the Berlin Wall when there didn't seem to be a threat in the immediate future that would require the tools and toys made by Boeing, General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin. But recent events would seem to show that I and others like me were wrong.

Even if you oppose the war in Afghanistan, the fact is many young Canadians have been saved by the weapon systems that once seemed so unnecessary. For example, Canada nearly trashed all its Leopard tanks a few years ago because it was believed they would never be needed, but there are many infantrymen who owe their limbs and lives to the fact the decision was never carried out.

The same is true of the Chinook helicopters, a platform that Canada abandoned in the 1990s, only to have to re-acquire it to improve safety and security for the troops. And as we are seeing in Haiti, many of the tools of war can also serve in ways that save lives and restore order, both abroad and at home.

Seems like the Boy Scouts had it right all along. Be prepared.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2010 A10

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