Flying Low, Flying Fast…
I have been in theatre for…hang on, I need to work this out…10 days now…and I have finally started to settle in. The whole way that you arrive into Afghan and what you spend your first few days doing is all dependent upon what job you will be doing, and more importantly where you will be doing it.
Generally, people fall into two categories, those who are staying INSIDE the wire, and those who are going OUTSIDE the wire. You spend your first few days doing the in theatre specific training that tops up the pre-deployment training you received back at home with some Afghan specific information tied in with the current Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). But the level and the duration that you spend doing that depends on which category you were.
As I was going outside the wire I had a fairly lengthy few days worth of training, which covered the use of a lot of the equipments out here as well as a days firing on the ranges and of course more time to practise with the all important Counter IED (Improvised Explosive Devices) equipment.
Once this training was over it was a mornings worth of admin time to allow us to ‘square our kit away’ before we moved on to our final destinations.
And how we moved on.
You can pay a lot for a thrill ride nowadays. If you are flush, a couple of hundred quid might buy you a trip in a helicopter somewhere. But money can’t buy the trip we had…
The flight was meant to last just 15 minutes, but we realised that something had gone awry after 15 minutes and we were still circling the Green Zone around the Helmand River at quite an altitude. The Crewman (who was actually a woman) manning the Machine Gun on the rear ramp of the helicopter came over and told us that we were on hold as there was a ‘contact’ going on near to our landing zone.
This brought the whole impact of where we were and what we were going into in to sharp focus. I have to admit that my throat went a little dry. A contact. A fire-fight of some description was under way near to where we would be landing. We circled for a good 10 minutes, the Crewman now with her hands on the gun ready, scanning the ground…and then she laughed and smiled.
She came over to me and told me to pass the message that the ‘contact’ that had been reported was just the Afghan National Army celebrating that day being the national day of Afghanistan by firing off a load of weapons into the desert. No contact at all. No bad guys shooting at good guys. No good guys shooting back – just some wild exuberance!
And then we lost height quickly. Like a roller-coaster going over the edge of the first incline. Sharply we dropped altitude. The negative-G of this pushed my stomach into my mouth and I sat back in my seat. Already strapped in tight, and held almost immobile by my body armour I closed my eyes for a second or two. When I opened them I looked to my left and through the open rear ramp of the helicopter I saw that we were low…very low, and going fast. The Crewman with her gun now ready as we did.
Swinging round through a valley, and then over a hill and down the side of the cliff face on the other side. Using the manoeuvrability of the airframe we went low and fast across land that could house Insurgents who wanted the ultimate prize…to bring down a ‘Mosquito’ (as they call Helicopters). But there was no chance of that. The brilliance of the flying and the capabilities of the aircraft meant they just wouldn’t be able to target us. They wouldn’t be able to keep up.
We sped over the land, now over green of the trees and the fields irrigated by the Helmand River and the canals that feed off from it, now over open scrub and desert. Low, low, lower…almost treetop height, and as fast as I could ever imagine a chopper going. And then with a swirl about in the air, a sharp turn, and the nose of the helicopter raising to decrease our speed quickly we came into the HLS, the Helicopter Landing Site, of the Patrol Base what was our destination.
As we touched down my hand was already on the buckle of the safety belt and within seconds the back ramp was fully down and our bags were being thrown off whilst we ran down on to the gravel; of the HLS. A quad bike appeared and our bags were loaded into it, as we ran around the corner…into the faces of people ready to board the chopper for their return flight. Within minutes, I can’t remember how few, but it was very few, as it was that hectic and time moved so quickly, the whole turnaround of bags, people, mail and equipment was complete and the helicopter was on it’s way back out towards Bastion…and me and my team were in a Patrol Base in the middle of Helmand Province, Afghanistan.