Pilots in Kandahar get long-awaited Chinook helicopters

Canadian pilots are finally flying long-awaited transport helicopters over the Afghan battlefield.

Canadian pilots are flying long-awaited transport helicopters over the Afghan battlefield.

The Canadian Air Force has confirmed that the first of six Chinook helicopters to be purchased from the United States are now at the Kandahar Airfield base.

"A small number of Canadian Forces aircrew are in Afghanistan undergoing training on these aircraft," Maj. Dave Sullivan said from Ottawa.

"They are not expected to be operational until early 2009."

Canadian crews must also be trained in the care and maintenance of the Chinooks before the helicopters can be fully worked in to battle planning.

Canada has not yet officially taken delivery of the choppers, which will cost a total of $292 million, although that is expected soon.

The deal was announced last August. Canada is buying six used CH-47D Chinooks from the United States and Canadian pilots began training on the aircraft in the U.S. over the summer.

The Chinooks are capable of carrying heavy payloads or several dozen soldiers. Their presence will reduce the need for military convoys to carry supplies and troops over Afghanistan's treacherous, bomb-laden roads.

A total of 40 out of Canada's 97 combat deaths in Afghanistan were caused by improvised explosive devices, although not all those deaths occurred during convoys.

Canada is the only major country in the ISAF alliance that doesn't have its own helicopter support, forcing its troops to rely on other nations, hitching rides when they are available.

Provision of some kind of helicopter support was one of the conditions under which Parliament extended Canada's combat mission to 2011. Helicopters and unmanned surveillance aircraft were both recommended by a panel led by former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley.

The push to get battlefield helicopters into Kandahar was mired in defence bureaucracy for almost two years. An internal debate pitted the army, eager to reduce soldiers' exposure to deadly roadside bombs, against a frustrated air force that sought a versatile aircraft, useful in more places than just Afghanistan.