Pinned down in a desperate firefight against well-armed Daesh forces it looked like the end for a group of Iraqi soldiers. But thanks to the bravery and clear-headedness of RAF Typhoon pilot Squadron Leader Roger Cruickshank, they were saved. Here Cruickshank describes the hair-raising ‘Mission 13’ over Iraq in 2016 to Hush-Kit.
Mission 13, 27 May 16 2016
6:50 Day 4 air-to air refuelling brackets
“Every mission was different and something unexpected almost always happened. So I woke up fairly nervous as I always did before every mission. It was more the anticipation of not knowing what could happen. That and the fact you are flying in a hostile environment where a large proportion of the people on the ground want to kill you. However, I had already flown 12 missions by this point so I knew I could do it. I had the confidence that my formation would be able to deal with whatever was thrown at us. We had a long transit into theatre so plenty of time to get comfortable in the cockpit and even time for a quick pee which requires practice in itself when flying a Eurofighter Typhoon single-seat aircraft! It had been ridiculously hot when crewing into the aircraft — at around 40 deg — so I had to keep adjusting the temperature in cockpit as my sweat cooled. The Typhoon cockpit environmental control system is good though it is a bit cramped for someone who is 6 ft 4 and carrying a lot of gear in order to survive if we had to eject into enemy territory.
We arrived into theatre nice and early, put in the stack above a pair of Dutch F-16s who were prosecuting an attack against some enemy fighters who were hiding in the trees. We were initially tasked to help them with tracking the enemy fighters where we could, though we were then handed over to the secondary Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), a sure sign that this was going to be a busy day! Straight away this got my adrenaline pumping – reacting to the tone in the JTAC’s voice made me on edge because there was obviously a lot going on in this fight.
A ‘9-line’ was passed to drop a single Paveway IV bomb on a large building housing an enemy sniper, so we immediately set to getting everything in the kit. We soon got the clearance and I prosecuted the attack with everything going as planned. I sat looking at my Litening Designator Pod screen, waiting for the impact. The Paveway IV (PW4) went in causing the desired effect but the JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller) came back saying that there was continued fire and they needed a re-attack. Probably because the sniper had moved to another part of the bullding before the strike and survived the blast.
We soon got the authority for the re-attack though almost immediately the JTAC came back with another tasking of equally high priority. We were getting to the point where we had to go air-to-air Refuelling (AAR) but decided to take the 9 line to try and prosecute it before we needed to get fuel. My wingman was taking the 9 line as I was lining up for my re-attack – busy times! The JTAC paused midway through his 9 line to give me clearance to drop and the 2nd bomb went in. The PW4 worked as advertised and the remaining part of the building was completely vaporised and the sniper killed in the process.
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We managed to get a quick bit of Battle Damage Assessment done (BDA) as we flowed straight onto the next target which was another building housing enemy fighters with friendly forces (FF) close by at ‘Danger Close’ – just metres from the building. It was a high priority because friendlies (the Iraqi Defence Force) were getting shot at by fighters within the building and had nowhere to go, trapped by enemy fire. We were now right on minimum fuel and after a bit of a fuel check/discussion we decided to drop down to a lower fuel and prosecute the attack, utilising a closer diversion which was much more dangerous but had a useable runway. I also managed to quickly get a hold of our UK Voyager tanker aircraft to ensure that they could track directly towards us so that we wouldn’t have to transit far before air-to-air refuelling with them. The attack was successful with the building destroyed and several enemy fighters killed. The JTAC said “You guys better go get some fuel before you fall out the sky!” He was extremely grateful of the work we had just done and very aware of the fact we had pushed the line to make the successful attack and save the lives of the friendly forces under fire. Luckily, the join up to the Voyager was seamless and they were extremely helpful to ensure we got fuel into our Typhoons as quick as possible to avoid us having to divert into a hostile airfield.
After air-to-air refuelling we came back and were told to search between two points, a road that was running beside a canal. We ended up tracking loads of suspicious-looking vehicles and enemy fighters then when I was doing my scan looking outside of the cockpit using the HMSS, there was a massive explosion. The biggest one I have ever seen with my own eyes, with the smoke cloud obscuring the sight of anything below it for a good while. Larger than anything from a PW4 or similar. It gave me a horrible tight sensation in my chest, witnessing something so catastrophic and final. I’m sure it must have been related to the enemy fighters on the ground as we had been previously told by the JTAC that there had been a lot of exchange of fire across the canal.
Soon we were then moved out of there and given a 9 line which was friendly forces under attack, again in the Fallujah area. We got our sensors in there and correlated the co-ords with a building housing enemy fighters. It was a Heavy Machine Gun team with additional enemy fighters in the area who had managed to pin down the Iraqi forces who were again Danger Close and taking casualties. They were trying to get us to positively identify the fighters in the open so that we could drop on them at the same time but in the end they deemed it necessary to drop the building immediately. I quickly got myself set up and began the attack. All was looking good until the moment I pressed COMMIT and after a couple of seconds, due to the constraints required on this particular attack, the symbology for the weapon release region just disappeared. I remember feeling the pang of guilt that I wouldn’t be able to prosecute the attack, thinking that I must have done something wrong or missed a particular switch selection. I kept holding the commit button then there was a thud as the PW4 dropped off my aircraft. There was a massive sigh of relief from me as I watched it destroy the building though soon we were working hard trying to track any escaping enemy fighters from the vicinity of this building. Soon they were lining us up for another attack to get the fighters in the open who were still clearly firing at the Iraqis and we actually witnessed a couple of explosions on the pod. They were using everything they had including Rocket Propelled Grenades and Heavy Machine Guns. My wingman dropped 2 PW4s first on a group of 2 fighters then on a group of 3 fighters in the open. I was providing cover and checking the area for any friendlies or unknown activity as well as tracking the enemy fighters who were constantly on the move. We managed to neutralise the threat from the enemy fighters and started to relax as the tone of the JTAC started to relax. We were all still running high on adrenaline which was evident from how fast we were speaking! We had been working hard and it really was a successful mission.
The transit home was uneventful but gave us plenty of time to reflect. As I started to calm down and try to remember exactly what had happened, I found myself very anxious to find out whether we had done enough to save the lives of our allied troops on the ground. It had been so busy that we were just getting moved straight onto the next attack and concentrating on what was next rather than what we had just done. You can’t help but harbour some doubt in your mind, especially when the pressure was on, but I simply focused on the fact that we had done our very best in what was a hugely dynamic environment.
When we landed, we found out that we had indeed saved the lives of all the Iraqi Platoon soldiers as they had been completely pinned down until we arrived and had been taking casualties on both occasions. Definitely my best mission in the air force and it was a day where I was truly proud to have been part of a team who worked so hard and saved peoples’ lives.”
Sqn Ldr R A Cruickshank DFC CFS RAF
Sqn Ldr Roger Cruickshank (35) is a II (AC) Sqn Eurofighter Typhoon pilot currently based at RAF Lossiemouth. He has served in the RAF for 16 years and been deployed all over the world, including operations over Iraq & Syria. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in the Operational Honours List 2017 for an act of bravery when he saved the lives of Iraqi solders who were pinned down by Daesh fighters.
Roger is an Olympian who competed in the 2006 Winter Olympics Downhill and Super G Alpine Skiing events. Though not without complication as he had a big ski crash just 10 months before the Olympics, which resulted in 9 titanium pins and a plate being used to reconstruct his leg. He also has 4 metal coils in his face after a mountain bike crash which required reconstructive facial surgery. On both occasions he lost his medical category that allowed him to be a pilot, having to fight back to full fitness and pass extensive testing to achieve his dream of being a fighter pilot.
He has been campaigning towards mental health awareness for the last 7 years and recently wrote a book called, “Speed of Sound, Sound of Mind”. His various charity work, including selling around 850 copies of his book worldwide, has raised over £10,000 for multiple charities including the Scottish Association of Mental Health, Help 4 Heroes and Heads Together.