Cameroon's night hunters in the spotlight
Erwan de Cherisey takes a close look at the Cameroonian Air Force's Z9WE attack helicopters.
In the last three years, the Armée de l’Air du Cameroun’s (Cameroonian Air Force: CAF) helicopter fleet has enjoyed a major expansion, increasing from just four aircraft to a current total of 12.
Aside from five Mi-17s, Cameroon has also received four brand new Harbin Z9WE attack helicopters. Nowadays, three of these are operational with the 23ème Escadron (23 Squadron) at Bamenda’s Base Aérienne 202 (BA202: Air Force Base 202), in western Cameroon.
While the CAF received its first Sud-Aviation SA318 Alouette II light utility helicopters in the late 1960s, it was only in 1981 that it pressed into service its first attack helicopters, after the first of a total of four SA342L Gazelles arrived from France.
Following the April 6 1984 Republican Guard’s attempted overthrow of President Paul Biya, the Gazelle took part in the counter-coup and neutralised several armoured vehicles in Yaoundé.
The Gazelle continued flying in the 1990s, providing air support to Cameroonian troops operating against the Nigerian military in the Bakassi peninsula during the territorial dispute there.
Lack of funding meant that, by the mid-2000s, the aircraft were all withdrawn without a replacement.
By the beginning of the 2010s, the CAF helicopter fleet was at its lowest point, with just four aircraft – two SA 330s and two Bell 206s – on its strength. However, improving economics and rising concerns over the situation in neighbouring Nigeria and the Central African Republic (CAR) eventually prompted the Cameroonian Government to initiate a military modernisation.
Increasing cooperation with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) resulted in the Chinese Export Import Bank (EXIM) extending a $3.5 million loan in 2012. The money was used to purchase a major consignment of military equipment comprising armoured vehicles, patrol ships, anti-aircraft weapons and helicopters. Indeed, the CAF decided to order four Harbin Z9WEs, a dedicated attack version of the Z9 utility aircraft, itself a derivative of the Eurocopter (now Airbus Helicopters) AS365 Dauphin.
Along with the aircraft, a package of weapons comprising HJ-8 wire-guided anti-tank missiles, 57mm rocket launchers and 23mm canon pods was included, as well as a set of spare parts, including a spare Turbomeca Arriel 2C turbine.
Training of the aircrews and support personnel tasked with operating the aircraft took place first in China, during four months at the AVIC factory in Harbin in the first half of 2014. The eight pilots selected for the course all had to have a minimum of 300 flying hours on helicopters.
The pilots’ course comprised several months of ground lectures and instruction and was followed by 15 hours of flight training before being qualified on the Z9WE. Flight engineers and technicians spent their four months in China on different courses, depending of their specialty (avionics, airframe, etc). Some of them then went to Airbus Helicopters’ facilities at Marignane, near Marseille, France, for engine maintenance training, with assistance from the Arriel 2C manufacturer, Turbomeca.
Finally, in November 2014, the four Z9WEs arrived in Douala by ship, where they were disembarked before being assembled at Douala’s Air Base 201, with the assistance of Chinese technicians. The helicopters were then extensively test-flown and pilots and technicians continued to train on them until April 2015, when they were relocated to their definitive base, BA202 at Bamenda, in northwest Cameroon, where they were inducted into the newly formed 23ème Escadron.
On April 23 2015, while on a training flight, Z9WE TJ-XDK crashed, sustaining significant damage. While both crew members were unharmed, the helicopter was too damaged to be locally repaired and had, thus, had to be shipped back to China, where it remains to this day.
Each Z9WE can either carry up to eight HJ-8 anti-tank missiles simultaneously, or a pair of 23mm canons or 57mm rocket launchers, or a mix of these.
The HJ-8 target acquisition is achieved thanks to the helicopter’s nose-mounted Luoyang Electro-Optics Technology Development Centre (EOTDC) optronics turret, which comprises a TV camera, an infrared camera and a laser rangefinder. The images provided by these sensors are projected on one of the aircraft’s two multi-function displays (MFDs).
The Z9WE features a head-up display (HUD), which is used for aiming when firing rockets or canons. For self-protection, it has a flare launcher mounted on each side of the fuselage.
The aircraft features armoured shock absorbent seats, as well as protected fuel tanks, which can resist small arms fire. It is powered by a pair of Turbomeca Arriel 2C turbines, each delivering a cruise power of 779shp.
Each CAF Z9WE has a Spectrolab Nightsun searchlight mounted on the left-hand side of its nose and Rockwell Collins provides the aircraft’s avionics suite.
The helicopters are fitted with a global navigation systems (GNS) navigator. They have an autonomy of 3 hours and 30 minutes, which can be extended by an hour with a ferry fuel tank. The three-axis autopilot and is instrument flight rules (IFR) rated.
On a combat mission, the aircrew comprises two pilots, although the aircraft has room for several passengers. The standard cruise speed when flying in Cameroon is 120 knots.
Bamenda’s BA202 was activated in 2013, when the CAF took over the facilities of the former Bamenda Airport. The base is located at an altitude of 1,236 metres and has a single runway with an approximate extension of 2,500 metres.
BA202 is currently commanded by Colonel Thomas Ngomané, a respected veteran CAF officer with 34 years of service and more than 2,000 flying hours garnered on CAF Alouette II, Alouette III, Gazelle, Puma and Z9s, as well as on the Bell 206L-3 and Dauphin of the presidential flight.
He is a dynamic officer, who firmly believes in intensive training as a means to achieving operational proficiency. This is reflected by the fact that the 23ème Escadron’s aircraft fly daily. As base commander, he is qualified on the Z9WE, having trained with his pilots in China, and he has logged more than 70 hours on the type.
The 23ème Escadron is commanded by Captain Jean Djotio, a young CAF officer who has already garnered much flying time and is currently the most experienced Z9WE pilot in Cameroon, with more than 180 hours on the aircraft.
The Z9 squadron is supported by a team of highly motivated engineers and technicians who, until April 2016, were assisted in their duties by a team of AVIC technicians on a one-year technical assistance contract.
Aircraft maintenance is conducted by BA202’s groupement des moyens techniques’ (GMT: technical capabilities group) escadron de maintenance (maintenance squadron), which currently comprises among its personnel three engineers, two avionics specialists, three engine technicians and one armourer. Maintenance is conducted on an hourly and calendar basis, with inspections taking place every 25 flight hours. So far, the most complex servicing process undertaken has been the aircraft’s 15 months’ inspection.
From January 28 to February 4 2016, the three Z9s of 23ème Escadron deployed to BA302 at Ngaoundere for a live firing exercise alongside a number of 13ème Escadron Mi-17s. The purpose of this training was to confirm the efficiency of the Z9WE weapons suite in a tactical environment. The exercise saw the firing of three HJ-8 missiles, as well as several hundred rounds of 23mm canon.
According to the CAF’s crews, the Z9WE’s main strengths are its high-tech avionics and optronics, its all-weather capability and weapons fit.
The Z9s were delivered with Chinese HY07 night vision goggles (NVG) sets, allowing for tactical night flying. The 23ème Escadron’s aircrews have extensively trained with these devices and are, thus, fully proficient in this particularly demanding aspect of flying, turning the squadron into one of the very few flying units in central Africa with the capability to conduct combat operations at night. Indeed, the live firing exercise conducted at Ngaoundere in early 2016, included a number of night flying phases, during which the Z9s were tasked with delivering live ordnance, including an HJ-8 missile, on a variety of targets. Perhaps the only real criticism of the Z9WE is the fact that it is motorised by the Turbomeca Arriel 2C instead of the more powerful 2C2 model.
While the aircraft are perfectly capable of supporting combat operations against Boko Haram in Cameroon’s far north, they have yet to be deployed operationally. The reason for this is that the Arriel 2C turbines are not yet fitted with sand filters, which are essential for sustained operations due to the overabundance of dust and sand in this particular region. Procurement of this equipment is currently pending.
Bamenda’s Z9WEs are currently Cameroon’s most sophisticated combat aircraft and provide it with a day/night all-weather attack capability, which, if not unique in the region, remains quite rare.
With 23ème Escadron’s aircrews and maintenance personnel steadily developing their skills as their experience on the type builds up, it is very likely that when the Z9s are finally deployed against Boko Haram, their air support capabilities will allow for new operational patterns to be implemented, such as night reconnaissance and identification as well as precision strikes against terrorist positions.