Canadian crews on the ground, in the air reach milestone transporting aid to war-torn Ukraine
Airlift operation has flown about 80 missions between Scotland and Poland
As the massive rear door of the Canadian C-17 Globemaster lowered to the runway in rainy Prestwick, Scotland, members of Canadian Forces Base Trenton's 8 Wing tactical airlift detachment pounced.
Within minutes, uniformed soldiers had unloaded pallets filled with what Canada's military euphemistically refers to as "lethal" and "non-lethal" aid — until one heavy load stopped them in their tracks.
It took at least 10 soldiers, a forklift and a lot of grunting and groaning before the secretive, heavy pallet was able to be transferred onto a trailer and towed up to a waiting C130-J Hercules for the next part of the journey to Ukraine.
CBC News was given unusual access this week to the operations of 8 Wing as aid destined for Ukraine was transported into Poland.
Reporting on what was in the cargo wasn't permitted — other than it was for both humanitarian and military purposes — but whatever was wrapped up tightly on the giant pallet stood out for the effort required to load it onboard.
Canada has said publicly that it is sending Ukraine four M777 howitzers, Carl Gustaf recoilless rifles, M72 Light Anti-tank Weapons (LAWs) and 7,500 hand grenades, along with different varieties of ammunition.
The military aid is part of a $1.2-billion package the Trudeau government has approved to help Ukraine respond to Russia's Feb. 24 invasion.
"Everyone is watching the news, so we know what is going on. We are proud to help Ukraine," said Sgt. Jimmy Noel, one of 30 members of the Royal Canadian Air Force's 436 Transport Squadron that has set up a temporary base at the Prestwick airport, about 45 minutes from Glasgow.
Two J-class Hercules military transport aircraft have been taking turns doing the runs into Poland using two aircrews.
"Since we got here at the beginning of March, we've flown approximately 80 missions," said Maj. Cam MacKay, who oversees the airlift operations at the Prestwick base.
"We've moved over 900,000 kilograms, which is just over two million pounds. And we fly pretty regularly. This is really our bread and butter."
Aid transported from Scotland to Poland
Canadian military pilots are legally allowed to fly 120 hours a month — and on the busy Hercules missions of late, they have usually come close to that.
The flight from Prestwick to their destination in Poland takes about three and a half hours and is mostly uneventful, although the descent is an unusually long and gradual one.
The airport used as a base by NATO forces, which CBC News has been asked not to name, is relatively close to the Ukrainian border, and the skies around the airport contain restricted airspace — forcing incoming flights to fly lower than usual as they come in on their approach.
Open-source flight tracking sites on the internet often show NATO reconnaissance aircraft flying through the airspace, monitoring activity in Ukraine.
As a hub for incoming aid to Ukraine, the airspace in eastern Poland is heavily guarded, and the United States has said publicly that it has installed state-of-the-art Patriot anti-missile systems in the region.
Russian officials have warned that it considers North Atlantic Treaty Organization flights and convoys carrying arms to Ukraine as "legitimate targets," but none have ever been attacked, and on the flight deck of the Hercules, MacKay said he believes the missions are safe.
"I don't really think about it. The government of Canada sent us here to do a job, and we're very proud to be doing that job. And we don't really think about the other piece," he said.
In Poland, an American ground crew met the Canadian plane and quickly unloaded the pallets from the rear of the Hercules — even the extremely heavy one was removed easily with the heavy-lift equipment at the NATO base.
The ground stop lasted less than 30 minutes before the Hercules crew was back in the air again, heading to Brussels to prepare for another transport the following day.
"There's no fixed end date on the operation right now," MacKay said.
"That doesn't mean it's going to go on indefinitely, but we'll start rotating our personnel crews. We're just hearing very positive feedback."