RAF civilian extractions from Libya

Nili nomen roboris omen
(The name of the Nile is an omen of our strength)

Last weekend, the United Kingdom mounted a combined-arms effort to evacuate citizens stranded at remote oil fields in the Libyan desert. As order broke down in Libya, Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Service (SBS) teams arrived in-country via commercial flights, disguised as ordinary business travellers.  Moving into the eastern Libyan desert, they reconnoitred the situation at oil facilities near Nafoora, Amal and Waha, and marshalled a hundred-odd civilians toward a pair of airfields controlled by rebels.  A trio of C-130s from No. 47 Squadron were summoned, entered Libyan airspace (without knowledge or authorization from either rebels or the Gaddafi government) and plucked the evacuees out of the desert.  Then the C-130s went back and did it again the following day.

The 3-minute video below was taken from the Sunday operation.  It depicts a Hercules transport departing Malta, flying in formation with other C-130s, overflying an airfield (identified in other videos as HLZA Zillah/Zella 74), arriving at the airfield, loading passengers—with engines running, a normal combat loading precaution—and the subsequent flight back to Malta.

In combined Royal Air Force and Special Forces operations, C-130 Hercules aircraft flew into Libya to recover UK citizens stranded at remote oil installations.

The first operation, which took place on Saturday, recovered around 170 people from desert locations south of Benghazi. About 70 of these were British. The second operation into the eastern Libyan desert on Sunday rescued nearly 200 stranded civilians, of which about 20 were UK nationals.

— “Prime Minister praises military effort in Libyan evacuations.”  Ministry of Defence | News, 28 February 2011.

The effort was not without some difficulty; some airfields had been blocked off by rebel forces and could not any landings.  Rebels also misidentified one aircraft as a Libyan government plane and fired upon it; one bullet penetrated the cockpit but fortunately did not wound anyone.

[BBC’s Frank Gardner] said an insurgent group on the ground which fired at the aircraft had mistaken it for a Gaddafi regime plane. They have since apologised for the incident.

Some of those rescued described the moment the Hercules was shot at, forcing it to abandon a landing.

One British oil worker said: “The aircraft took two hits on the right hand side of the fuselage, you just heard ‘bang bang’ as the rounds actually struck.”

Another said after failing to land at two blocked off fields, the Hercules was trying again at a third when the firing started, forcing them to abort.

The Ministry of Defence confirmed that one of its C130 aircraft appeared to have suffered “minor damage consistent with small arms fire”, adding that “there were no injuries to passengers or crew and the aircraft returned safely to Malta”.

One round bounced off the pilot’s helmet but he was unscathed during Sunday’s rescue of oil workers.

— “Libya unrest: UK rescue plane had a ‘narrow escape’.”  BBC News, 28 February 2011. [Emphasis mine]

Identifying the airfields involved in the extraction effort is not so easy.  MoD has been somewhat tight-lipped about the exact airfields it utilised, and media reports generally do not name the fields, either.  A report in the Daily Telegraph lists oil facilities that the SAS and SBS teams investigated, but they do not specify the airfields involved.

The extraction teams flew into to the desert oil facility of Nafora before splitting up and heading to Amal and Wafa.

They then collected around 150 oil workers and escorted them towards two airfields south of the rebel held city of Benghazi.

The airfields had already been secured by militia opposed to Colonel Gaddafi and private security personnel working for the large number of international oil companies operating in the region.

On Saturday afternoon, without the permission of the Libyan authorities and in broad daylight, two specially equipped Hercules C130 transport planes took off from Luqa Airport in Malta for the 40 minute flight across the southern Mediterranean.

— Evans, Martin and Andrew Hough.  “Libya: special forces come under fire during rescue of stranded civilians.” Daily Telegraph, 28 February 2011.

I am a little doubtful that Wafa is the actual town/facility name, because Nafoora and Amal are in the eastern Libyan desert, while the Wafa oil field is hundreds of miles away on the other side of the country—along the Tunisian border.  With apologies to the Telegraph, I consider it far more likely that the third site was actually Waha (not Wafa); it’s only a hundred-odd miles away from Nafoora, is accessible via roads from there, and could be reached in the same day with a borrowed vehicle.  It would be impossible to reach the western Wafa facility from Nafoora, except via aircraft.

I’m afraid I also have to quibble with the given flight time of 40 minutes from Malta to the destination airfields.  Amal’s airport is the closest of the three potential sites listed by the Telegraph, and it is still over 500 nautical miles distant from Malta International Airport in Luqa.  By way of comparison, a turbofan-powered Boeing 737 can fly from Toronto to Montreal in about 40 minutes at 0.74 Mach, and the distance between those two cities is only 274 nautical miles.  According to USAF’s air mobility planning document, a turboprop-powered C-130 travelling at its normal cruise speed (and accounting for slower speeds during takeoff, climb, descent and landing phases of flight) will average just 242 knots over 500 nautical miles.  This would give a C-130 a travel time of at least two hours to either Nafoora or Amal.

I’ve illustrated the potential destinations and flight times in the graphic below.  I’ve also included all of Libya’s oil concessions (territories leased to Libyan or foreign petroleum companies for exploration and exploitation of oil fields) and known oil fields; this helps give us an idea of where the most petroleum-related activity is taking place, and subsequently where the most foreigners are likely to be.

Libyan oil fields, oil concessions, and potential extraction airfields used by 47 Sqn on February 26th and 27th, 2011. (Click image to enlarge)

If you’re curious as to what the airfields look like, they have asphalt-surfaced runways with lengths between 5,700 and 9,900 feet, and a minimum of ground equipment and support facilities.  Here they are—and you can, of course, click the images to enlarge them.

HLNR Nafoora/Nafurah 1

Latitude: 29°12’47″N (29.213194)
Longitude: 21°35’32″E (21.592356)
Elevation: 122 ft (37 m)
Runways: 1
Longest: 9910 × 148 ft (3021 × 45 m), paved

 

HLAM Amal V12

Latitude: 29°28’46″N (29.479500)
Longitude: 21°07’21″E (21.122442)
Elevation: 145 ft (44 m)
Runways: 3
Longest: 5700 × 95 ft (1737 × 29 m), paved

 

HLWA Waha/Warehouse 59A

Latitude: 28°19’21″N (28.322383)
Longitude: 19°55’48″E (19.930050)
Elevation: 488 ft (149 m)
Runways: 2
Longest: 6918 × 94 ft (2109 × 28.5 m), paved

 

HLZA Zillah/Zella 74

Latitude: 28°35’24″N (28.589878)
Longitude: 17°17’38″E (17.293858)
Elevation: 1085 ft (331 m)
Runways: 2
Longest: 7050 × 95 ft (2149 × 29 m), paved

 

(Undesignated) Wafa

Latitude: 28°53’29.55″N
Longitude: 10°04’48.55″E
Elevation: 2185 ft (666 m)
Runways: 1
Longest: Unknown, presumed paved

This is the outlier, the undesignated airfield near the Wafa oil field.  It doesn’t appear to have any assigned ICAO code and isn’t listed in the aviation databases I have access to.  I can only assume it is a private airfield for use of the relevant petroleum companies, and the airfield data has not yet made its way into general circulation.

_____________________________________________

Brigadier James Bashall

Well done to No. 47 Squadron, as well as the SAS and SBS men that they support.  Britain has at least retained some idea of what an air force is for, and how it might be used in non-permissive scenarios.  A British general, Brigadier James Bashall, chairs the ponderously-named multinational force—the Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation Coordination Cell—that coordinates international military extractions through the British High Commission in Malta.

Canadian policymakers (and the general public from which they are drawn) are much more timid creatures, less willing to hazard our military aircraft on the unauthorised aerial intrusions for which they are designed.  So our own evacuation efforts are dependent on the approval of Gaddafi’s bureaucracy and have had somewhat mixed luck, with a chartered aircraft being sent away empty, one C-17 initially being denied landing rights in Libya, and a C-130 being turned around midway to Tripoli due to lack of ramp space.

The Canadian aerial contingent in Malta consists of four CF aircraft (two C-17s and two C-130Js) who are tasked with assisting the evacuation of non-combatants from Libya via Operation Mobile.  The first Canadian evacuation flight was made by a C-17 from Trenton’s 429 Sqn on Saturday, February 26th; it flew 24 Canadians, 12 citizens of the United Kingdom and 3 Australian diplomats from Tripoli International Airport to safety in Malta.

The commander of the Canadian NEO mission in Malta, Lt-Col. Anthony DeJacolyn, has ruled out the possibility of non-permissive entry into Libyan airspace (on the orders of his political masters, of course), so in essence Canadian forces will fly when and where Gaddafi gives them leave to do so.

OTTAWA — The Canadian military has no plans to conduct extraction raids into Libya and citizens who want out of the chaotic North African nation should make their way to embarkation points, the commander of the mission said Friday.

The perils of such complex special-forces operations were highlighted this week with the capture of three Dutch marines, who were apparently trying to rescue evacuees in a region under the control of forces loyal to dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Intense negotiations for their release were said to be going on in Tripoli on Friday while Libyan state television showed images of the trio, one of whom appears to be a woman.

…Meanwhile in Malta, Canadian Forces Lt.-Col. Tony DeJacolyn said, “There are no current plans to extract Canadians.”

“The current concept of operations is to move Canadian entitled persons and instruct them to move to points of exit, whether it be by sea or air.”

…The air force has been flying missions, but getting landing permission is a nightmare because there is no electronic link with Tripoli. All requests for landing rights are faxed and often there are few people at the other end to collect the documents.

— Brewster, Murray.  “CF rules out raids in Libyan evacuation mission; waits for orders on aid.” Canadian Press via Macleans, 4 march 2011.

The idea that our air force should seek permission from a tyrant’s collapsing bureaucracy is a farce. But this is Canada, so we pay for our men and women in uniform to be better-dressed surrogates for Air Canada and WestJet, rather than a force that can go into hostile environments and remove Canadians (and allies) at the decision of the Dominion government.  As the SAS, SBS and RAF have demonstrated, this is not a lack of equipment or capability; it is simply a failure of political will.  I’ll be sure to remember that at the polling station, next time the opportunity comes around.

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
One Response