Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire…
I thought it was a good idea.
It seemed like a good idea.
It WAS a good idea.
It was the application of that idea in to action that was where it all went wrong.
You see, I was working as the exercise co-ordinator at Cosford, and with the help of the station RAF Regiment Flight, we were able to give the trainees an idea of what it might be like to work and live in an austere deployed operations base where the facilities were…basic to say the least, cooking Ration Pack food, bowls for washing-no showers, and basic portaloos for toilets. They had to defend that base against ‘insurgents’ who would attack the site with small-arms, mortars and rockets (simulated of course) and still carry out their trained tasks of putting aircraft in the sky, fixing them or working on communications equipment.. We did vehicle ambushes and IED strike training, we did mortar attacks. Of course all the rounds we shot were blanks, and we used Battle Noise Simulators…real mortars and live bullets had a LOT of paperwork attached to them…We once even rigged together an air strike…however…
The idea. I was given a free range to come up with different ideas to fill the time on the exercise with new things- which we called ‘injects’. We would have patrols getting ambushed, but it got a bit same old same old after a while and the trainees came to expect ‘something’ to happen when they went out for a patrol. So we would mix it up a bit and try new things.
Sometimes we would get them to do a stretcher run when they were under fire. It would simulate an injured man being shot and put on a stretcher and they would have to run across the fields from where they had been ambushed to the deployed base. One of them would be the leader of the patrol and would have to organise the extraction of the injured man, organise fire parties to give covering fire for the run as well as think about the people carrying the stretcher…it’s not easy work running whilst carrying a dead weight of 100kilos on a stretcher for 200m – wearing full kit.
I say dead weight, because Health and Safety rules meant that we could not carry a real person on the stretcher, so we had a dummy named Derek. He was basically a load of sandbags stuffed into an old set of combats. He was a quiet old soul and put up with a lot, being thrown around, chucked into the back of a Landrover, dropped and generally abused. He took all this with good grace.
Back in the office I was thinking up new things for the next exercise and I noticed Derek at the bottom of the stairs. I then noticed something next to him. A parachute.
And there was my idea. Derek could be a “Pilot” he could have ejected from a jet and had come to the ground in a parachute; however he could be injured and unable to walk. The trainees could be tasked with finding and retrieving him. And whilst they were doing that, they could be ambushed by ‘insurgents’. There’d be confusion, there’d be chaos, and the trainees would have to use their leadership and followership skills to get the pilot and themselves to safety.
So we set it up. The Regt guys took Derek out and dropped him in a wasteland area not far from the base. Spreading out the parachute behind him. They then set a couple of themselves up in an ambush position to open fire on the trainees as they appeared to pick up Derek.
And I sent out a patrol with the task of finding and extracting Derek. I briefed the squad about ambush drills and actions on, so they were fully aware – as they would be each time they went out – about what they SHOULD do. I had another section on QRA – standby to support the patrol ‘just in case anything happened’. And off they went.
I was in the base with the Q-team, and sat ready to go. Over the radio we got the message saying that the pilot had been found and they were putting him on the stretcher. Then we could hear gunfire. And the obligatory ‘Hello Zero, this is Bravo-Alpha, Contact. Wait out.’
This meant that the patrol had come under fire. We could hear the patrol return fire as it should and then a full Contact Report came over the radio. But as it was being given I heard one of the trainees in the background say ‘It’s on fire.’
What? What the hell had happened out there? The only fire was meant to be rifles shooting. No actual fire with flames or anything. I asked the sender to confirm there was fire. He did. ‘Yes Sarge, there’s a fire.’
I got the Q-team and we ran to support the patrol. And as I ran over the rise in the ground I could see the scene in front of me. I stopped for a second to take it in. There were 5-6 trainees on the ground returning fire to the 2 ‘insurgents’ who were attacking them. 2-3 other trainees were clustered around Derek on the floor with the aim of putting him on the stretcher, but instead of doing anything they were just sitting there, unable to move – or not knowing what to do. They had frozen.
Because the parachute, still attached to Derek, was on fire.
What had happened was that the Regiment lads had thrown a smoke grenade and it had landed on the parachute. When a smoke grenade goes off it gets very, very hot; so hot that it set fire to the parachute it was resting on.
And the flames were getting closer to Derek the dummy AND the stretcher. And this was a bad thing. A very bad thing. Because we had no fire fighting equipment. The only thing we could do was get the parachute off Derek…so I shouted at the trainees to do so. ‘Don’t just bloody look at it. Get Derek unstrapped!’
But as the parachute didn’t have all the attachments for connecting it to anybody or anything the lines from the chute were just tied to the webbing belt that Derek wore. With knots that were not easy to undo when in a rush. Particularly when there was real fire involved.
‘Cut it off!’ I shouted. But none of the trainees had a knife, the trainees just sat there looking at each other, so I pulled out my knife and using the serrated blade I sliced through the lines separating the parachute, which was now WELL ablaze, from Derek the Dummy.
‘Get him out of here…’ The trainees jumped into life and did their business and extracted Derek on the stretcher to the safety of the base whilst they were given covering fire and the incident came to a halt.
It was a really good ‘inject’ as we called them. All the better for the reality of the fire. In retrospect, once the fire became real, given H&S we shouldn’t have carried on with the inject, but…we’ll that’s what training is all about isn’t it?
Learning to put into action the skills you’ve learnt in high pressure situations where things are confusing. In this case, there were shots being fired all around un – even if they were blank rounds – they can still sound real when the adrenaline kicks in – there were Battle Noise Simulators going off (BIIIG bangs simulating mortars or grenades) and of course there were the smoke grenades pouring orange and green smoke across the training area. It was easy to forget that this WAS just training. It was slightly dangerous, but, well I am a great believer that a bit of danger is good for people. Particularly in learning situations. And this was a really good one of those!
And it was a good lesson for the trainees – and as much a lesson about operating under pressure situations to myself as them. They froze because they were inexperienced. I used my years of experience to motivate them and deal with the situation…but in my own mind I learnt from the situation almost as much as them…And thinking back now writing this the lessons might stand me in good stead in the future with the looming deployment to The ‘Stan. I know it’ll be different there, but…well, again, that’s the point of training…
Once the whole thing had clamed down and the Regiment blokes came out of their position we stood next to the parachute on the ground. All that was left were a few of the guy-lines that had been tied to Derek. The rest of it was a charred and burnt mass of ashes on the ground in the shape of a parachute.
It looked comical. It looked just like a cartoon image of an umbrella in an old Tom and Jerry cartoon – you know when the character is holding the brolly up in a thunder storm and it gets hit by lightning…and it turns to ash in the shape of the brolly before it crumbles to ashes…it looked exactly like that. You could clearly see the outline of the parachute on the ground – and that was all that was left of it really. Just an outline and a few bits of para-cord.
‘Sorry mate’ said one of the Regiment guys. ‘I chucked the smoke and it hit that stone and bounced over onto the chute. Sorry.’
‘Yeah, well these things happen. Good training value though. I suppose I better go and tell the Boss what has happened…We’ll de-brief the inject and then I’ll go and see him.’
So once we had discussed the event in detail with the trainees involved…talked about keeping a cool head, and that doing ANYTHING is better than doing nothing…particularly when you might be under fire…I got in the Landrover and trucked over to my Bosses office. There I knocked gingerly on his door.
Holding a piece of the still slightly smouldering parachute guy-line, I saluted and said…
‘Boss, you REMEMBER that parachute we had…well, there’s a funny story about it…’