On first meeting Lt.-Gen. André Deschamps, the new Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), one can’t help thinking of the Chinese curse
April 14, 2010 By Peter Pigott
On first meeting Lt.-Gen. André Deschamps, the new Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), one can’t help thinking of the Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times. With the closing of the Winter Olympic Games, Canada’s Air Force is presently heavily involved in three other massive operations: the Joint Task Force-Afghanistan Air Wing, the G8 Summit Canada is hosting, and most recently, the Haitian relief efforts. Next year, Canada will be pulling its forces out of Afghanistan, a logistical exercise that is sure to make heavy demands on airlift, military and civilian. And this is not even taking into account the usual duties with NORAD, NATO, northern re-supply and surveillance, to say nothing of Search and Rescue (SAR) operations over the massive landmass of Canada. And then there is the embarrassment of riches in new equipment. After decades of starvation, the Air Force is currently adapting to an influx of new aircraft. The last of its C-17s arrived last year and the first of the C-130Js are due this summer. Then there are the Chinooks CH-147 Deltas in theater now with the Chinook Foxtrots arriving in 2012, the conversion of the CH-146 Griffons into armed escorts, the CU-170 Heron UAVs, the Cyclones in the fall, and the decision on the Next Generation Fighter (the CF-18 replacement) due this summer.
Lt.-Gen. Deschamps joined the Canadian Forces in 1977 and was first employed as an instructor on the Musketeer trainer at Portage la Prairie, Man. Instructing was not his first choice – like all young pilots, he wanted to get on fighters right away but as it turned out, it was the best choice. Instructing on the Musketeer allowed him, he says, the chance to mature as a pilot.
Soon he got his chance to fly CF-104s in Europe. The Cold War was on and operating the Starfighter in the German environment, he says, “was very conducive to fighter operations.” In 1989, Deschamps transitioned to the transport world and served as a tactical pilot on the C-130 Hercules at both 436 and 429 Squadrons. Around the first month he got into Hercs, the Yugoslavia conflict began and he got to experience a type of flying that was completely different from the CF-104. He rounded out his multi-engine flying experience with a tour on NATO E-3A (AWACS).
When asked which aircraft he preferred or his most memorable experience, Deschamps gave a diplomatic answer. “It’s like asking a parent to choose his favorite child,” he laughed. “Each allowed me to explore skills I didn’t know I had until I was put in the cockpit of that aircraft.
But unlike his predecessor Lt.-Gen. Angus Watt who flew Sea Kings, the new CAS had never qualified on helicopters. “I’m bit of as closet helicopter pilot,” he admitted, “When I was at Portage as an instructor, we had a chance to do some cross-pollination in the instructor group and I got a chance to try my hand at helicopters. It was great fun and… it forces you to try some skills you don’t typically employ.”
At the time of the interview, it was almost exactly a month since the earthquake in Haiti and the conversation turned to the Canadian Air Force’s role in Operation Hestia. It was a source of pride to Deschamps that within 18 hours of the earthquake, the first C-130 was taking off from CFB Trenton with the DART team and medical supplies. The first of the C-17s left the next day laden with a SAR Griffon, rations, water and tents. As we spoke, relays of CF aircraft were shuttling back and forth between CFB Trenton and Kingston, Jamaica, Port-au-Prince and Jacmel, creating a 4,000-mile air bridge. “Flexibility – that is the essence of air power,” he said, “to be able to respond quickly and with effect. And the addition of the C-17 multiplies the effect we can generate on very short notice.”
Nothing illustrated this better than Jacmel, says Deschamps. “The C-17/C-130 was a package that gave us the flexibility to go where we wanted with immediate effect by using our Hercs as a relay between Jamaica and the Dominican Republic without having to go through Port-au-Prince.” When asked how he viewed his tenure as CAS unfolding, Deschamps said he was focused on operational success and delivering that success across a broad front. “I can’t be successful in operations if we don’t transition these new fleets, integrating them into our operational structures. And it’s a hand-in-glove challenge as we are engaged on so many fronts at the same time. We can’t take a pause now; it’s a bit like a relay race.” Truly, interesting times for the new CAS.
Peter Pigott is a Wings writer and columnist.