OTTAWA - The Canadian air wing in Kandahar, considered one of those incalculable intangibles of war and a unit whose presence saved untold lives on brutal Afghan roads, is now part of the history books.
The air contingent formally stood down at Kandahar Airfield on Thursday in a brief ceremony.
Air wing commander Col. Al Meinzinger described the closure as a "significant day" for the Canadian Forces, saying the unit helped boost counter-insurgency efforts to "unprecedented levels" during its 32 months in theatre.
By moving nearly ferrying nearly 90,000 passengers and 7-million tons of cargo since its inception, Meinzinger said the air wing played a crucial role in protecting Canadian and coalition soldiers alike.
"(it made a) huge contribution, unquestionably saved lives," Meinzinger said from Kandahar on Thursday. "Quite amazing how that capability was introduced so rapidly."
When the lumbering CH-147D Chinook transports and the modified CH-146 Griffon armed escort choppers appeared in 2008, Canadian troops were dying frequently in ever-increasing roadside bombings.
The helicopters, along with unmanned surveillance drones, were ordered into Kandahar as a result of the Manley commission, which reviewed Canada's role in the war.
Helicopter travel is not without risk. Thirty-eight lives were lost when a U.S. Chinook was shot down earlier this month, while four Canadian soldiers were injured in May when their CH-147 chopper crashed.
Despite these incidents, air travel is seen as a much safer alternative to perilous road convoys, which often fell victim to deadly improvised explosive devices.
How many lives may have been saved by the Manley commission decision is one of those inappreciable facts that Meinzinger underlined in a recent interview.
"Keeping our brave soldiers off the road was an absolute Godsend to this mission," he told The Canadian Press last month.
But why it took over two years and the intervention of an independent panel to get those helicopters into the war zone is one of the more enduring mysteries of the conflict.
When Canada went into Kandahar in 2006 it did not have choppers, even though it was something ground commanders quickly realized they needed. The U.S. Army offered the Defence Department six used 'D' model CH-147 Chinooks, but the request sat while the air force and the Harper government tried to arrange the purchase of a more up-to-date model.
The offer was finally accepted at a cost of $282-million.
One of the airforce's greatest accomplishments of the entire mission was staffing the air wing under extremely tight time restraints, Meinzinger said, likening the experience to desperate staffing situations faced during the Second World War.
The air force was forced to quickly recruit pilots for their new aircraft, many of whom had not flown the helicopters before, he said.
"We very quickly selected some of the Griffon pilots and Griffon maintenance personnel, we very rapidly went to the U.S. for some training, and we had them over here in theatre virtually weeks later meeting up with their aircraft and flying missions," he said.
The Chinooks needed armed escort helicopters, something not in the Canadian inventory. Defence planners ordered the modification of eight of the country's CH-146 Griffon utility choppers, at first with light machine guns, but later with high-powered M-134D mini-Gatling guns.
"I can tell you first-hand, the insurgents are terrified of the Griffon weapons platform," said Meinzinger, referring to intelligence reports and radio chatter. "They have a particular term. They refer to the weapons system as Allah's Breath of Death."
The helicopters continued to operate after the departure of battle group soldiers last month in order to haul leftover supplies and equipment back from forward operating bases that are now under American control.
Meinzinger said the air wing's tactical airlift unit, consisting of two C-130J Hercules transport planes and about 60 personnel, will continue to operate until mid November. The unit will help ferry equipment out of Kandahar and provide support to coalition forces, he said.
During the mission, two of the six Chinooks purchased by Canada were lost.
One was shot down in the summer of 2010 in Panjwaii, while the other crashed during a pre-dawn operation in May resulting in injuries to four soldiers. Meinzinger said the accident is still under investigation, but provided no further details.
The military is working to sell the remaining Chinooks, he said.
One Griffon was also lost in an accident during the summer of 2009 when dust obscured the pilot's ability to take off. Three people, including a British engineer, died in the crash.
Correction: The photo in this story has been changed. The previous photo showed a Blackhawk helicopter, a model not flown by the Canadian Forces.