Hawker test pilot DUNCAN SIMPSON recalls a posting to South America in 1956 to oversee the introduction of the Hunter Mk 52 into Peruvian Air Force service — “five of the most difficult months of my life . . .”
By late 1955 the first of the reconditioned ex-RAF Hunter F.4s purchased by Peru, designated Mk 52s, were ready to be delivered, so at the beginning of March 1956 I started preparing to depart for South America, where I was to oversee the assembly of the aircraft and train the pilots of the Peruvian Air Force to fly them.
By mid-April I was ready to begin the Hunters’ test-flying programme. It was a critical moment. Limatambo was essentially a civil airport and the loose gravel surface of the runways was hardly ideal for jet aircraft, although its length of 2,000yd (6,000ft — 2,200m) was adequate. Both runways were flanked on either side with a flourishing cotton crop, and the undershoot and overshoot areas had their share of obstructions, including a 10ft (3m)-high brick wall at one end.
I could afford to wait until the weather conditions were good to start the flying programme — which was just as well, as there were no navigation aids and no radar. Eventually, on April 18, 1956, I made the first flight of the first of the 16 Hunter Mk 52s, from Limatambo airport.
On May 22, Peruvian pilots made six flights in the new fighters, led by the Group Commander, Col Fernando Paraud, a likeable rogue who had previously flown a 20min sortie in a Hunter at Dunsfold. He and his colleagues, Mayor Leon Melgar and the Flight Commander and senior pilot, Capitán Alberto Thorndike, very soon completed the conversion course and later flew each aircraft on an official acceptance check. I had to do all the briefing; fortunately the standard of pilots, who were all trained in the USA, was high.
While supervising pilot conversion I continued to fly the aircraft after they were assembled. I did enjoy being let loose from the daily frustrations at Limatambo. I had to take infinite care over the test flying; the luxuries at Dunsfold just did not exist in this fascinating environment. Usually I would climb to 50,000ft to the south, with the Andes to my left and the Pacific Ocean to the right, ending up overhead the settlement of Pisco.
In the event of problems arising I had no emergency retreat, apart from returning to Limatambo. I usually took time off at the end of each test flight to fly out over the Andes, the massive mountains rising to 20,000ft. Unlike the Alps, the snow level was very high, so the mass of mountains appeared to be a variety of shades of brown rock stretching as far as the eye could see. Frequently I could see signs of human building in the most remote and inaccessible places — possibly Inca remains.
For the full previously unpublished story, illustrated with the author’s photographs, see Hunters Over the Andes in Issue No 2 of The Aviation Historian — www.theaviationhistorian.com.
In 1990 the world watched as Saddam’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. Saudi Arabia feared further aggression, and the US rushed in to safeguard the centre of its oil supply. The first step in fortifying Saudi Arabia was to send in equipment to build an airbase big enough to house the strike force of the world’s most powerful super power. This vital first mission had to be carried out to perfection to demonstrate to Saudi the US’ commitment and strength. USAF made the questionable decision of entrusting the success of this mission to a hard-drinking, back-chatting navigator with a serious attitude problem. This is his story.
I made it to the squadron building with a minute to spare, the senior master sergeant shaking his head as I crossed the street, flicking away a cigarette butt and lazily saluting a passing airman. ‘Morning, Captain, if I was you I’d get your ass in the briefing room straight away.’
‘What’s the hurry, Master Sergeant? You make it sound like I’m heading off to war or something.’
He smiled and patted me on the back as we entered the building together. What I saw threw me. The entire squadron seemed to be huddled in every bit of space, with excited chitter-chatter causing a din. The common room, which was usually a very large open space where the odd crew member might spend some time shooting the shit or having a post-flight beer was now sealed off behind temporary walls covered with signs saying Top Secret – No Unauthorized Entry. ‘Christ!’ I said, ‘Who’d they hire as an interior decorator, the Pilot’s wife?’ The room burst into laughter, as my pilot’s wife actually was an interior decorator but her skills left something to be desired.
The senior master sergeant walked me straight into the briefing room, behind all the Top Secret signs. I didn’t understand – wasn’t the whole squadron being briefed? Why was everyone out there while I was being ushered in?
When I entered the newly secure briefing room I could feel everyone looking at me and I slowed the chewing of my gum to a halt as I acknowledged the colonel with a ‘Good morning, sir’. My Pilot’s eyes were burning holes into me but I would not match his gaze instead catching the Co (co-pilot) and Boom (boom operator) stifling smiles, as it was apparent everyone had been waiting for me.
‘Let’s get started!’ growled the colonel and we did. The briefing took about an hour and a half. There were two flight crews present – my crew and one of the Standards and Evaluation (Stan Eval) crews, our squadron commander, his assistant, the squadron master sergeant, the schedulers and two admin staff.
We were briefed and without spilling top-secret information, we were to be part of beginning of Operation Desert Shield – the protection of Saudi Arabia against possible attack from Iraq. Our job was to carry engineers and equipment to build a ‘tent city’ in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. This would become the major operation base for our units in Saudi Arabia. We had wheels-up time of 12:00 noon and were to have crew briefings and hit the tarmac.
The two crews left the briefing room and our chests were a bit puffed out as we were walking on cloud nine. Of the fifteen or so crews in our squadron it was obvious one of the two Stan Eval crews would be picked but our crew was picked above all of the others. We were the first of the first going AND in about two hours. We had to get our shit together!
We briefed our flight, which would take us on a northerly route over the Atlantic. The route was the same one we always took, up the northeast of the United States and out over Nova Scotia where we would leave air-traffic control using celestial navigation. The route would fly us south of Iceland and over the top of Ireland bringing us across England to our destination in Suffolk, England, a stopover point before heading to Riyadh.
The Stan Eval crew took the honours of leading us across the pond and led the mission planning. Our job was to follow them and I was to also use celestial navigation to ensure the lead aircraft did not venture off course. The Stan Eval crew’s navigator had about ten years’ experience on me, but I assured them with a wink that I would keep an eye on him, making sure he didn’t get us lost.
After our briefing the Stan Eval nav and boom joined my boom and me for a cigarette. All of the squadron wanted to come over and join us but knew we’d be talking about our mission so let us be. Only once did I get to say, ‘If I told you I’d have to kill you’ and that was to this other navigator who I didn’t like and was a dick anyway so I was happy to tell him to get lost. We couldn’t help but feel lucky to be selected and we were the envy of everyone in the squadron. We had no idea what the future would hold but whatever it was we knew we weren’t going to miss it.
The next step was one of the most important in our departure plan – lunch! Lunch is an extremely underrated part of mission planning. When you are flying at 35,000 feet and you are hungry there is no place to go get a bite. Also, the chances of being held or diverted were regular occurrences and flying on an empty stomach usually led to air sickness. We were allowed to build our own special box lunches up to a certain value and the flight kitchen would prepare them and have them ready for us to collect prior to takeoff. We’d fill them with sandwiches, potato chips, soft drinks, chocolate bars – basically anything our mothers would never have put in a packed lunch. I was vegetarian at the time so was able to usually fit in more chocolate and chips than the others as my cheese sandwiches cost just a few cents.
We also gave our lunches names, mine was called the ‘Anti-airsickness’, the Co’s was called ‘The Gutbuster’ and for some unknown reason the Boom’s was called ‘Squirrel’ which he pronounced Sqwerl.
When we hit the tarmac and caught sight of our plane I was happy, the tail number was a good one. We’d been assigned a dependable plane that had less of a chance of breaking down unless we decided to ‘break it’ ourselves in some exotic part of the world, like the time our plane broke in Hawaii and we had to spend a week there waiting for a part to arrive and be fitted.
Anyway, we completed our pre-flight checklist; engines started and were ready for takeoff. The tricky parts to flying were always takeoff and landing – or any place near the ground, I used to tell the pilots. Our KC-135 was an A model. This meant that the engines had water injection to create steam providing extra power to help us takeoff as we were usually very heavy in weight. Today was no exception as not only did we have fuel to refuel the four F-15s we were ferrying over to England but we were loaded down with tents and other supplies needed for the engineers in Riyadh. I don’t think we had ever been heavier, so the injection of water for 110 seconds was vital for our takeoff to be successful. These planes were built in the mid- to late 1950s and we were reliant on the technology of that age to take us to the newest of conflicts..
There were newer, more powerful KC-135 R models (no water injection) and also KC-10s (requiring no navigator) but we were selected ahead of them all and as we rumbled slowly onto the runway my eyes would dart between the pilot’s instruments and my stopwatch ready to inform the copilot when 110 seconds were complete and he could turn off the injection pump. Take-offs meant all eyes up front watching for anything that could cause us to abort a takeoff. Of course we were always briefed that we could call ‘abort, abort, abort’ anytime during a takeoff as the pilot obviously had a lot going on and if we felt the safety of the takeoff was being jeopardized to speak up without fear of repercussions. This last bit was added because if we did call for a takeoff to be aborted it would mean having to refill the plane with water and delay our takeoff time, thus delaying our arrival at the rendezvous point to provide fuel and possibly resulting in the cancellation of more than one mission. No pressure! So I always felt I had be pretty goddamned sure if I was going to abort a takeoff.
I did actually abort a takeoff once; I was flying with another crew as their navigator was off sick. Their pilot assured me, as they always do, that if I saw a safety risk I should abort the take-off and then after the pilot had cleaned up the plane we would discuss what had happened and address the situation. We were twenty seconds into the take-off and I spluttered over the intercom, ‘Abort! Abort! Abort!’ The pilot aborted, but not without darting a dirty look at me over his shoulder. We slowed and left the runway with seventy seconds’ worth of water pouring out of our engines on to the tarmac. The co-pilot immediately jumped on the radio trying to organize a water truck to fill us up and ensure the tower had a new takeoff slot ready for us when we were ready. I was already calculating how we could cut off time getting to the rendezvous point so as not to cancel the mission and still refuel our receivers.
‘Goddammit, Nav!’ suddenly burst in my headphones. ‘Why’d you abort that takeoff? Now we have to wait to refill with water! What were you thinking? Our whole mission could be jeopardized.’ I turned to see the pilot screaming at me, his face going red with anger. He had his intercom button pushed but didn’t need it as he was less than four feet away from me and yelling in my direction. ‘What possible reason could you possibly have for aborting?’ he shouted, not letting me get a word in and going against everything he had said in the briefing if we felt the need to call Abort. ‘Well?’
I narrowed my eyes and counted to three, then I shouted, ‘Close your fucking window Pilot!’
He quickly turned to his side window, which was wide open and slid it closed and locked. ‘Roger, thanks, Nav,’ he said over the intercom in his calm pilot voice.
‘Fuck you, Pilot!’ I shouted across the cockpit.
The danger of having the window open during takeoff was that it would add to the amount of drag on our aircraft, and at such a heavy weight would have caused us to crash and die when we made our first turn. I only flew with him once more and he almost hit a hot air balloon over Dallas / Fort Worth because he wouldn’t divert.
He ended up getting out of the air force and into the desirable job of flying with a major airline… I keep waiting to fly that airline and hear his voice come over the intercom. I would then ask one of the flight attendants to go tell the pilot to make sure his side window is closed. Dickhead…
This time, our takeoff and flight to England was flawless, no compass malfunctions like the last time I flew over the pond. Even though we were not the lead aircraft I still had to navigate as if we were and communicate any variance with the lead aircraft. I had no issues and in the post briefing we compared charts and found they were almost identical, which just went to show we knew our shit, and we agreed we were the reason why they selected our crew for this mission.
As we were closing in on England the crew was wide awake chirping how I had earned beers when we landed. I knew this meant I could get a draught pint of Guinness from a pub – a special treat for me as all I could get in America was the bottled Guinness, which a friend once described as tasting like ‘burnt grass’. I could taste my first pint and joked that we should actually have our debrief in the pub. Even the Pilot laughed at that. It’s always a good feeling to get over the Atlantic on time, on course and alive.
When we landed I quickly performed my shutdown checklist, then was down the ladder and fifty feet off the nose of the aircraft lighting up a cigarette. I could really taste the pint of Guinness hitting the back of my throat and going down smooth as chocolate milk.
The Boom joined me and I told him I couldn’t wait to get a few pints into me. He looked at me with a puzzled look that he sometimes got when his brain could not comprehend a situation he was in.
‘What?’ I snapped.
‘Well, Nav,’ he said quietly. ‘You keep going on about drinking but I don’t think the bars in England are open. It’s five a.m.’
Pause. Tick tock tick tock…
‘Goddammit!’ I shouted, and so loud, that both pilots looked up from their checklist out the front window of the cockpit to see what was up. I panicked for a minute and felt myself slide into depression. We were scheduled to do a twelve-hour turnaround meaning takeoff time would be around five in the afternoon with no drinking as of immediately.
‘Goddammit Boom, that means I don’t get a Guinness and then we go to fucking Saudi where it’s illegal to have alcohol,’ I said, hanging my head. I had not thought this through properly. I knew that drinking was not permitted in Saudi, but Jesus, I didn’t think my last drink would be the whisky from last night! ‘Goddammit!’ I said again, throwing my cigarette butt to the ground, burying it in the damp English grass with the toe of my boot. As I climbed into the plane I started to whine immediately, ‘It’s five o’clock in the goddammed morning which means I don’t get a fucking pint.’
‘War’s hell’ jibed the co-pilot.
‘Fuck you, Co.’ I said giving him the finger
The Pilot shook his head and said, ‘It’ll keep us razor sharp for the next leg of the mission, Nav. We need to be focused as we will be lead going into Riyadh.’
‘I don’t care about the next mission; I care about getting my pint of Guinness! Who the fuck scheduled us to land at 5:30 in the goddamned morning anyways? Dickheads!’
‘Easy, Nav,’ I heard the pilot start to say as I was already halfway down the ladder shouting that I was going for another cigarette. I made my way over to fifty feet off the nose of the Stan Eval’s aircraft where their navigator was having a cigarette.
‘Nice flight, Kurt,’ I said, shaking his hand.
‘Thanks. Glad to have had you backing me up,’ he quipped.
I immediately launched into a tirade about landing at ‘o’dark thirty’ and not being able to go for beer. He laughed. Kurt was from Tennessee and I knew he had a bottle of Bourbon in his bag that he would be sipping on once we were settled into our rooms. I could never understand that – why would anyone want to fly to the other side of the world and sit in their crummy billeted room drinking what they drank at home when we could go out into a new country, meet people and drink Guinness?
He looked at me blankly so I shook my head and retreated over to stand in front of my own plane to finish my cigarette.
All through debrief my mood was black as coal and, yes, in hindsight, I was probably acting like a child but I didn’t care. How hard was it to schedule a flight to land when the bars would be open?
We finished debrief and were on our way to billeting when we were reminded that we were on crew rest as of now and that we should get settled in and get some sleep. The Co and I were together in one room. The Co was your typical well-mannered, clean-cut American kid, the kind that makes parents proud. The Pilot and Boom shared another room. The main reason for this was because the Pilot and I did not see eye to eye. He was uptight and straight-laced, albeit a great pilot. He is similar to the Matthew Modine character in the film Memphis Belle. So, anyway, he and I didn’t room together and he didn’t want me corrupting the Boom, who was a nineteen-year-old from Alabama, already married with a kid. I liked the Boom a lot and felt sorry for him that he always got stuck with the Pilot.
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I couldn’t sleep and ended up staring at the television, which no matter what time of the day it was seemed only to have the options of parliament arguing about something or snooker. I always chose snooker, as I didn’t care about Britain’s politics. The Co slept soundly for a few hours and when he awoke we went to get some lunch before the bus arrived to take us for mission planning.
We hooked up with the Pilot, Boom and other crew over lunch and made our way over to the squadron where we were informed that the Stan Eval’s plane was broken and that they were working on fixing it. We were immediately put back on twelve hours’ of crew rest and set for a 5:00 am takeoff, although the crew chiefs were doubtful that they would have the plane fixed by then.
I maintained my composure as we collected our things and went back to billeting where we was assigned the same rooms and settled for the same roommates as before. We agreed to meet for dinner at 7:30 p.m. and then would all get some sleep before our early morning bus. Upon entering our rooms I immediately started jumping from one bed to the other, much to the Co’s displeasure due to my boots mucking up his bedspread.
‘What are you so happy about?’ he asked dumbfounded
‘Are you kidding me?’ I squealed, ‘Let’s go for some pints after dinner. We’ll act as if we’re coming back to sleep and then sneak out!’
‘You’re crazy,’ he said. ‘We’re on crew rest and I’m not sneaking out to drink before our flight.’
‘Pussy!’ I laughed. ‘C’mon, you can have one pint and then watch me have a few. We’ll be back in plenty of time to get some sleep before our bus comes to collect us.’
‘No fucking way, Nav! I am not going out,’ he said with determined finality.
‘Well I fucking am, and you better not tell on me either!’
He gave me that look that says ‘as if’ and I immediately regretted saying it.
Over dinner I scanned the faces of the others wondering if there was any way I could get the Boom to come out with me, or at least Kurt from the Stan Eval crew. I knew better than to ask though as the Boom was sharing with the Pilot so that was a no go and I didn’t want to take a chance on asking Kurt, who would be in his room anyway, sipping bourbon and watching snooker – which he also enjoyed. After dinner I gave an exaggerated yawn, to which the Co rolled his eyes, and suggested we hit the sack saying, ‘I don’t want to get us lost over Sweden tomorrow.’
‘But we’re not flying over Sweden,’ said the Stan Eval copilot.
I gave him the finger and called him a dickhead while everyone laughed, breaking the tension caused by the unknown we were about to face. He told me to fuck off, but since I outranked him I told him to fuck off and to give me fifty push-ups as well. He didn’t, I told him I’d have him court-martialled and we all went our separate ways to get some sleep.
‘C’mon, co,’ I begged, ‘Just one pint. We can’t have come all the way here and not have one drink to toast our successful flight. We always go for a drink… You’ll piss off the Flying Gods if you don’t pay them tribute by consuming vast quantities of alcohol after a successful flight!’
‘Yeah, but we’re not usually immediately put on crew rest, so it doesn’t matter that you want to go out like always and get really drunk and—’
‘And what?’ I cut him off. ‘You’re the one who got sick on the northernmost Denney’s in Alaska.’
‘Yeah, cause you asked the stripper missing a tooth to join us at our table!’ he retorted.
‘Wrong!’ I yelled pointing at him accusingly. ‘You were sick on the Denney’s sign as soon as we got out of the cab…’
‘The cab that I paid for…’
‘You were the drunkest so obviously you paid!’ I said, cutting the conversation short. ‘C’mon, it’ll be cool. We’ll meet some girls. They’re all easy in England cause they live on an island and are just waiting for a big hunky American from… Where are you from again?’
‘From Indiana to come and sweep them off of their feet and show them that everything really is bigger and better in America!’
He laughed as he lay down on his bed, grabbing the remote control and turning the television on. There was nothing on two of the channels except a photo of a little girl and a clown – creepy. TV had gone to bed and so, it seemed, had the Co, as he changed the channel to the snooker.
I almost joined him to watch the snooker when I realised he wouldn’t budge because his Dudley Do Right persona had taken over, and he gave me his ‘I feel sorry for you’ shrug.
‘Fuck you, Co!’ I shouted, ‘I’m going to the pub and I don’t care if you come with me or not.’ I grabbed my copy of Catch 22, which was the book I had chosen to accompany me on this historic mission – in hindsight, quite an inspired choice.
I arrived at the nearest pub and the time was 9.20 p.m. but because England treats its citizens like children and tells them to go to bed at 11.00 p.m. I needed to get some serious drinking in. I walked straight to the bar without glancing left or right, trying to appear confident, showing that I always went into pubs, and in particular, this pub – which I had never set foot in.
‘Guinness, please’ I said to the little man behind the bar.
To which he replies, ‘Boint?’
I immediately lost my cool façade and said, ‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Boint?’ he said again, but a little bit louder, drawing the attention of some old men around the bar and more importantly two girls at the corner table.
I leant in and whispered, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that,’ hoping he would follow suit concerning the volume of our conversation.
He didn’t, of course, and instead of showing any form of decorum lifted a pint glass up in front of my eyes and said very slowly, ‘Would you like a “boint” of Guinness, sir?’
I nodded and crawled into my shell seeing as it was quite apparent I was not from round these parts. Then I grabbed a stool at the bar, catching the glance of one of the girls in the corner but ignoring her as I was now officially mortified.
‘Ther’ ya ar’, sir,’ said the barman as he set down one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in front of me. ‘That’ll be £1.19,’ he added.
I had no idea what the coins meant that I had drawn from my pocket, so asked him not to rip me off too much and stuck out my hand full of various coins for him to select the correct amount. I felt even more foolish but, as it would happen, the girls giggled and I immediately adopted the look of a lost orphan, and asked if I could join them.
It turned out that I was indeed in luck. The girls are called Vanessa and Karen. Vanessa’s Father owns the pub. I return to the bar to order drinks for the three of us and return with two pints of Guinness for myself.
‘Do you girls wanna see a magic trick?’ I ask downing one of the pints in one go.
They laugh and tell me there is no need to rush as Vanessa can get us a ‘lock-in’. When I ask what that means Vanessa informs me that a lock in is when we are allowed to carry on drinking after the pub is shut. Lock-in, as in literally locking the door to keep us in. I like the way the English use literal language to describe things. Way Out opposed to Exit or Lift opposed to Elevator. It keeps it simple and I can appreciate that.
It quickly became apparent that I have fallen head over heels in love with Vanessa and ask her to marry me, even though I was honestly still trying to figure out how to get both of them back to my room.
Vanessa laughs and says I only love her because her Father owns the pub, to which I reply, with the waggle of a finger, that that is a very true statement but quickly add that we shouldn’t quibble over the why of our love but embrace the what of our love. She asks me to define ‘the what’ of our love and I excuse myself to go to the restroom.
I return to a table full of a fresh round of drinks and we carry on drinking, laughing, joking, solving 3rd world nation problems, comparing musical taste and forgetting the outside world all together until Karen comes back from the bathroom and says she has just been sick and needs to go to bed. I look at my watch and it is after 2:30 in the morning and realise I am very drunk.
I say good night to the girls giving Vanessa a long, lingering kiss promising to come back to the pub to see her again. I pat Karen on the head giving her hair a little ruffle saying I hope she feels better and start to make my way back to the base.
I can feel myself swerve and stagger, watching my shadow do the same – never missing a beat, as I make my way down the road. The guards on the gate do not seem amused as I fumble for my ID card to gain access to the base.
‘Thank you Sir’ says the Airman popping a very crisp salute to which I can only respond with a half-cocked arm barely bringing my fingertips to my brow. I stagger through the gate and navigate my way back to my room trying to be as quiet as possible, which is extremely difficult to do when you are drunk.
I finally manage to get the room door open as I am starting to feel sick and wonder if I need to throw up before throwing myself onto the bed. I am very drunk and have not slept for over 24 hours. I need sleep very badly.
As I enter the room the bathroom light is on and I can hear running water. I open the door and see the Co shaving at the sink.
‘Jesus Christ Nav!’ he exclaims, ‘Where the fuck have you been?’
I mutter something as I make my way to the bed and flop on it.
‘You gotta get up Nav. Our bus is here in twenty minutes.’
‘I don’t care’ I snort my mouth and nose buried in my pillow. ‘Go without me.’
The Co later describes the following scene to me, as I have no recollection.
The Co lifts me from the bed and walks me into the bathroom telling me to splash cold water on my face while he starts the shower – a cold shower. He leaves me to get into the shower telling me I need to sober up and fast!
I know he is right and I start to freak out a bit knowing that I really fucked up here. I let the cold water of the shower stream onto my face and feel myself becoming rejuvenated but know this will only be a temporary measure.
I come out of the shower and pour myself into my flight suit and hurriedly pack my bag.
‘What are we gonna do Nav?’ asks the Co.
‘Tell ‘em I’m sick’ I slur.
‘Well, hopefully the plane is still broke and we can get you back here to bed. The crew chiefs said they didn’t think they’d be able to fix it. Jesus Nav, you really fucked up. What did you do? Where have you been all this time?’
I am drunk, yet sober with fear. The Pilot is going to fucking kill me and possibly court-martial me.
‘The Pilot can’t find out Co. Tell him I’m sick and I will sit in the back of the bus as far away from him as possible. Tell him I’ve been throwing up since we got back from dinner. Shit Co, you gotta help me.’
‘I will’ he says handing me a handful of tic tacs. ‘Just keep eating these, you smell like a brewery!’
Luckily we are first to the bus and I climb in settling into the very back. The Pilot will sit shotgun, as he is the mission commander.
I hear the Co telling the Pilot and Boom that I am sick and have been throwing up for hours. I feel like throwing up now but just shut my eyes and pray the plane is broken so I can get into bed and die.
The Stan Eval crew joins us and everyone clambers onto the bus the Co sitting next to me. Kurt, the Stan Eval nav is sitting in front of me and turns around asking me if I’m ok.
‘Ya alright Buddy?’ he asks and when I tell him I’ll be ok he backs away from me waving his hand in front of his nose ‘Jesus! You smell…’ he stops himself ‘pretty sick there… you gonna be ok?’
He alters his look from me to the Co lifting his hand to his mouth miming ‘drinking’. The Co nods his head and Kurt glares at me as I have now put the two of them in a very difficult position. They don’t want to tell on me so need to cover for me.
Kurt chimes in as we drive along. ‘He’s not looking too good back here. We’re gonna need to address the situation to see if he can fly.’
‘Should we pop by the hospital and get a Doc to look at him?’ asks the Stan Eval pilot.
‘No!’ Exclaim the three of in the back a little too eagerly.
‘I’ll be ok’, I say and the Co mentions that the plane may be broken still. They all agree that this could be true so we will wait until mission briefing to decide.
When we arrive at the squadron building I keep my distance between the Pilot and myself. I give him a ‘thumbs up’ when he looks in my direction and, luckily, he has other things to be getting on with but I can see the worry on his face wondering if I am going to screw up the mission.
My heart sinks when the crew chief gleefully informs us that he has fixed the plane and we are good to go. The hope of getting to bed has now evaporated in front of my very eyes. I will be stone cold sober by the time I see a bed. Journeying through drunkenness into the land of the hangover and ending up wanting another drink before I next sleep.
‘We gotta make a decision about your nav’ says the Stan Eval pilot. ‘As far as I see it we got two options here. We scrub the flight and get him to the Doc which could lead to him being DNIF (Duties Not Including Flying), which basically grounds your crew, or we take the lead to Riyadh and you guys follow us. We are flying over land most of the way, the weather looks good so your nav isn’t really necessary. He can just bunk out in the back and hopefully feel better. I feel option two is our best as we need to get the supplies out to Saudi ASAP and we are already twelve hours behind. I’m gonna call it.’
‘Wait’ screeches my pilot in a panicky high-pitched voice. ‘If our nav is too sick to navigate lets swap. We’ll take your nav and ours can fly with you. We’re supposed to lead this mission.’
The panic is apparent and it dawns on everyone in the room that we will be the first two planes to arrive ‘in country’ on this campaign. We have no idea if there is going to be a war or how long American troops will be in Saudi but this mission will be making history and nobody in the room wanted to be the Buzz Aldrin of Operation Desert Shield.
‘I’m sorry’ said the Stan Eval pilot. ‘I think it is best, for safety reasons, that we stick to our crews.’ Which is bullshit.
‘I’ve made my decision. Mission plan remains the same except Stan Eval crew will now take the lead’ and looking at my pilot, who was completed deflated and devastated, added ‘Keep your plane a mile back and a thousand feet above. We’ll see you in Saudi, let’s get to our planes.’
Kurt the Stan Eval nav patted me on the back as he walked past, ‘Tough luck kid, you could’ve made history.’ ”
We saw the images on the television screens as we sat at the baklava café in Benghazi. The frenetic movements of the young men in half khaki suggested that some distant event was occurring, but we remained rooted in our casual conversations as we drank our macchiato and then the convoy departed to the airport. As the propellers beat and wheels came up, we were leaving far behind the displacement camps visited earlier that morning, where families conglomerated and sat ashen faced and introspective, having fled after the abuses perpetrated by their youth during the siege of Misrata. And soon land unfurls into the sea – the Bay of Sirte.
I sink against my seat, rest my head against the scratched window, and flick an antique, silver ashtray cover back and forth in time with my thoughts. The aeroplane is borne aloft into the cloudless blue sky, dangling from unseen strings, as the sun creeps along the length of the now gleaming wing, up and over the surf, the breakers and the rolling waves so very far below.
Time slows down, and the delegation is soon snoozing like tabby cats in the warmth from the windows and the soothing drub of the engines. I, the other hand, am impatiently awaiting for the nose to nod and signal our descent. But we do not go down when we are supposed to go down, and now our aircraft is spiralling up and round, and pointing back out to sea. One among us is wakened and called to the cockpit, returns shaking his head and with a puzzled air. “I am not sure it can be true, but they say that Gadhafi is dead. Tripoli is celebrating and shooting volleys in the sky. The brigade from Zintan is similarly marking the occasion at the airport and it is not safe to land.” Now the pilot’s voice trills in, passengers stir and whispers pass around the cabin – our diversion to a new destination is confirmed.
“If this were the way the world ended I couldn’t give a bean.”
Palpable excitement meets with frustration among our fellow travellers – they wish they could be in Libya now to revel in this moment. Others are worried; they lack the necessary papers for Europe. An unattended sense of distance overtakes me. If this were the way the world ended I couldn’t give a bean. I will go wherever this plane will take me. When the cliffs and castles of Malta loom into view against a swelling background field of blue, a feeling of happiness and sweetness washes over me. We land in Valetta in the middle of the afternoon, and all is well with the world.
Mark Townsend, war correspondent, describes the air war in Afghanistan from his first-hand experiences embedded with British forces. This is a Hush-Kit exclusive.
In a war where the most lethal threat is buried underground, Afghanistan’s airborne operations are often obscured behind the escalating roll call of IED victims.
Yet visitors to Helmand Province are quickly reminded that, like all modern campaigns, almost everything relies on what’s happening above.
To move safety across landmine sown terrain, to guarantee the outcome of skirmishes and acquire intelligence of enemy strongholds depends upon air supremacy. In fact, to get anywhere near the province you’ll need wings. The first aircraft you’re likely to experience is the C-130 Hercules, rumbling south from Kabul to the sprawling US base outside Kandahar or further on to the UK’s shrunken versions in Camp Bastionor Lashkar Gar.
Helmand is still several miles below when the flight crew gestures –despite ear plugs the engine noise is deafening – for all passengers to don flak jacket and helmet.
Now the descent. Hard and fast. Anti-missile devices on, the engine’s drone is higher now, the aircraft’s slumbering frame suddenly feels oddly nimble, its nose pointed at the ground at an angle civilian flight has never prepared you for.
But then most flight time above Afghanistan is akin to a roller-coaster. Although the Chinook is regarded as the aviation workhorse of the British army, its moth-like body churning furiously through the hot Helmand sky, I only remember it as a jittery fairground ride of never-ending dips and rolls.
The exception, perhaps, being the 20-minute hop from Camp Bastion to Lashkar Gar, often a smooth affair, its load sprinkled with stern and sensible-faced reconstruction officials and diplomats. But head north from Bastion to, say, Sangin and movement by Chinook becomes a very different prospect.
You already suspect as much before you’re on board. The helicopter’s landing gear has barely touched the tarmac when the command is issued to move forward, you stumble towards its ramp, suffocated by the eyebrow-singeing heat of its two side-mounted engines. Seasoned soldiers gasp for breath, bodies bent into the draught from its spinning rotors. You’ve hardly had time to wriggle into the delicate mesh seats when the rear gunner gives the thumbs up. Then you’re up,over the perimeter fence, above the first wadi, the first cluster of Afghan compounds. Goats stare up, kids wave and you can see their smile and you guess the helicopter is no higher than 300 feet before you start lowering. The Chinook banks hard to the left, then right,you lurch forward, suspended by the flimsy safety harness as the Chinnok follows a wadi north east to Sangin. By now, you’re no more than 50 feet above the surface, its desiccated banks in line with the helicopter’s belly.
You gasp as the Chinook banks furiously again, pushing you deep into the harness. You raise an eyebrow at the young soldiers sat opposite, to say ‘this is some ride,’ but there is no acknowledgement. No one is smiling. Some swallow hard and grasp their rifles, some stare at the receding desert flats out of the open rear, others through the dust-smeared viewing port-holes. You remember they are off to war and some must surely be worried they might not travel back alive, or otherwise on their back lying on the floor of the medevac Chinook,wired up to a saline drip as medics battle to keep them from slipping under. Some probably just hate flying. Others, too, would avoid the Big Dipper given the chance. Flight time is no more than 25 minutes of lurching forward and back, occasionally the helicopter interior filling with a backdraught of dust and fume-filled air.
And then the final approach. Suddenly, we’re climbing – below, the blue strip of the Helmand River – and then as quickly we’re dropping quickly through the “fire zone” where the enemy have recently aimed ground-to-air rockets at approaching choppers. The Hesco barrier marking the outer wall of the British army’s Sangin forward operating base, blurs past below. The soldiers opposite are all now gripping their SA80’s, eyes widened. The Chinook lands with a jolt, blades still whirling, helicopter trembling and we’re running out through the wall of heat and noise into a dust-storm. As the last boot leaps from the lamp, the Chinook is already rising, swinging around to the river.
There are other ways to ride a Chinook. Keep heading further north from Sangin to the remote base of Kajaki, submerged between jagged mountain ranges, and the journey changes. This time, the Chinook chugs slowly to 9,000 feet and for those prone to vertigo, the sight of endless peaks through the helicopter’s open rear presents a terrible urge to hurl oneself to the battlefield far below.
Again, as always, it is the descent that is most hairy. This time the helicopter weaves through a valley whose sides tower above. It is a vulnerable passage of flight. As the craft approaches the landing zone, it passes below the wreckage of another Chinook, struck weeks earlier by a Stinger missile. And again, the expressions of the soldiers opposite never change, fear is a redundant emotion for airborne ground troops.
Yet while Chinooks provide their safe passage, it is the sight of another helicopter in the cloudless Helmand skies that unfailingly lifts the spirit of NATO’s infantry. The AH-64 Apache is their saviour. Its appearance, like a fuming firefly, is invariably a sign that the fighting in question will come to an end, its mere appearance usually sufficient for the Taliban to retreat.
Those who have seen the Apache in action will testify its ability to hang in the air, clinically despatching laser-guided Hellfire missiles at pre-selected firing points.
It is a merciless machine. Within several days in Helmand it was evident that the Apache’s arrival always guaranteed victory or at least a successful retreat. And that’s Helmand: you spend the whole time worrying about what lies beneath while waiting for something to appear in the sky.
Award-winning journalist Mark Townsend is the author of the Point Man: