ALWAYS Check Your Kit…
I joked this morning about wearing a full NBC suit and respirator when faced with having to change my daughter, Lily’s, dirty nappy.
And it reminded me of something that happened out in Saudi, in 1991.
The First Gulf War (or the Liberation of Kuwait War, or whatever you want to call it) was in full swing. The air war was well and truly underway and the only response that Saddam Hussein had to the bombing was to launch Scud missiles over towards us in Saudi Arabia and in Israel.
For those who don’t know, a Scud Missile is basically like the old World War 2 V2 rockets. The Scud sits on the back of a flatbed lorry, is raised to the vertical, pointed in roughly the direction of the country you want to hit, and then launched. It is not very accurate, indeed hitting the right country is considered a good thing with a Scud. And Saddam used loads of these to try and (a) fight back in the only way he could as his air force was more concerned with running off to Iran to hide for the duration and (b) to try to bring Israel into the war. On item (b) he failed, but on (a) he did manage to increase panic and fear in the countries he was attacking – and had a notable success in hitting an American Army feeding station (more on that in a future blog post).
The main reason for the fear was, of course, because of the suspected weapons of mass destruction – particularly chemical weapons.
And chemical weapons are not nice. And of course Saddam had got form on using them, both against the Iranians in a ten year long war in the 80’s and even against some of his own population. So it was a real fear that in the conflict against us, he might use them again. Hence the NBC suits and respirators.
Oh, I’ve not said what NBC suits are. They are basically a set of over clothes worn as a suit to protect the whole of the body. NBC stands for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological – although the term has been replaced by CBRN now (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear) – same stuff, different name.
Anyway, the suit is lined with Charcoal to protect the wearer from the various nasties that could be used in a NBC environment and is topped off with a Respirator (modern name for a gas mask) and thick rubber gloves and the so called (by us anyway) ‘Paccawelly’ or NBC boot. That was a fold-away rubber over boot with laces that – to be honest – wasn’t a great design. They were long winded to put on, heavy, ill fitting, and very difficult to move about it.
So. Back in 91, the war is underway and 29(F) Sqn is on what felt like a permanent night shift. They Tornado F3’s were flying Combat Air Patrols, but not doing that much to assist the war effort and we as ground crew were quite busy keeping them serviceable.
And as often happened during the late evening there was a Scud alert. Here the long range radars had detected a Scud launch from within Iraq and plotted it’s rough trajectory to be Saudi Arabia. As it’s flight was underway this plotting was refined to say that it was heading toward the Dhahran area and that we should take action. It was the late 20th Century version of a wartime Air Raid – sirens went off around the base and we ran for the shelters that we had built with help of some Royal Engineers. As part of the air raid drills – and remembering the chemical weapon threat we started to put on our NBC suits. The most important piece if which was the respirator.
This was real life saving equipment as, well, breathing is pretty important.
And so we all dived for the haversack on out belts that we carried at all times and pulled out or ‘ressies’.
Ahhhh. Did I say all? It wasn’t quite all.
Stevie – an electrician – pulled open his haversack and looked inside.
To find nothing.
His respirator wasn’t there. He’d left it back in his room at the accommodation block we lived in. Which was about 6 miles away.
Can you imagine his horror? The sirens wailing. People running for shelters, pulling on kit and donning respirators. And him just standing there.
Now Saddam had not actually used chemical weapons before – but that didn’t make it any less scary each time a Scud alert was called. He might do NEXT time was the mantra we all thought about. And yes we had total faith in the American’s Patriot Missile Battery that was just behind our ‘line’ of aircraft – defending the whole of the air base – but we felt it was defending us particularly as we were so close to it. But….
Stevie did the only thing he could do. Panic. Various people tried to calm him down – all to no avail . To be honest there would be little that would have calmed me down…He was guided towards the shelter were he could sit down under cover and wait for the all clear. But as he sat down his panic built…and then he had an idea.
In the Respirator haversack, everyone carried a spare cannister (basically where the air filtration was carried out) for the ressie. This was sealed in a vacuum packed bag – to keep it safe and ready for use should the one fitted to the mask become damaged or need changing after it’s ‘life’ of 8 hours of breathing in a chemical environment was up.
So Stevie took it out. He opened the sealed bag and then much to everyones amusement pulled it up to his mouth. And he put it directly into his mouth, his lips over the threaded attachment like a 7 year old sucking on a lollypop. And he breathed through it. And to protect the rest of his face and his eyes he pulled up the hood of his NBC suit right over his head. And pulled the drawstring of the hood really tight. Really, really tight, so that it constricted about the canister that was sticking out of his mouth. And then he sat there.
For the full duration of the Scud alert – and was the most relieved man in the world when we got the ‘All Clear’ saying that the Scud had missed, and had fallen harmlessly into the sea.
Would his home-made respirator have saved him IF the Scud had hit us, and IF it had been carrying chemical weapons? Who knows…
…but it did give rise to a LOT of amusement for the rest of us, and taught us a valuable lesson about checking that we had all our kit before we went anyway…the phrase “You don’t wanna do a Stevie” passed into squadron legend…