Air Force Afghanistan: Episode 3

Friday 26th June 8.00pm

Continuing this week is the documentary series that chronicles life for the British servicemen and women stationed at Kandahar air base in southern Afghanistan. In the third instalment of the series, a military doctor heads outside the wire to offer her expertise to some Afghan villagers, an RAF Hercules crew embarks on a mission to the front line and the base comes under attack.

From Kandahar air base, hundreds of troops from 28 different nations and thousands of tons of supplies are dropped to the front line every day. The workhorse of the operation is the RAF C-130 Hercules aircraft, nicknamed ‘Fat Albert’. Since the Herc crews always fly at night to avoid enemy fire, it is 2pm when pilot Flt Lt Chris ‘Chap’ Phillips and his men start their day. “We never make any of the food times here so we end up supplying ourselves,” explains Chap over an unconventional breakfast from his bunk.

Chap and the team’s latest mission is to drop 16 tons of supplies to ground troops serving on the front line in Sitting Bull, a notorious combat zone in the heart of Helmand Province. The drop zone is only 50 miles away, but the terrain is hostile. “There are inherent risks in what we do – that can’t be avoided,” says Chap. It soon becomes clear, however, that this mission is going to be tougher than normal thanks to the failure of a navigational aid known as a sonde. Without this piece of equipment, Chap will have to fly much lower than usual to hit his target, before climbing sharply to avoid detection by the enemy.

Back at base, NATO medical adviser Wg Cdr Kev Mackie is preparing to go outside the wire for the very first time. His mission is to oversee a medical outreach programme in a small village in southern Afghanistan, but he will need protection. Accompanying him on the journey will be Sgt Benet Jones and the lads from the RAF regiment. “I’m quite excited to be going out and seeing the real Afghanistan,” says Kev. “I’m a bit nervous, but I’ve got immense faith in the guys taking us out there.” Kev will also be taking a standard-issue SA80 5.56mm rifle, but hopes he will not be called upon to use it. “If I have to fire this weapon, we’re in serious schtuck!” he says.

Once in the village, French flight surgeon Eléna Kereun examines a number of locals keen to have a checkup. The average life expectancy in Afghanistan is just 42 years, and the child mortality rate is one of the highest in the world – so any visit by a western medical team is much appreciated. Many of the villagers’ complaints are easily curable with simple drugs available over the counter in Europe.

Once the queue of patients has been cleared, Eléna is pleased with a successful mission. “It went well,” she says. “But it would be great to do it more often.” Before the troops and medics leave, the RAF boys have a treat for the local children and hurl handfuls of sweets into an excited crowd. “That was a success!” reflects a happy Kev upon safely returning to base.

Elsewhere this week, the relative peace of a Kandahar night is broken by a rocket attack by Taliban insurgents. A big explosion near the accommodation block has left a number of soldiers injured. As Kev Mackie travels to the base hospital to assess the damage, he hopes there have been no fatalities. “If a rocket lands on top of you, it will vaporise you,” he explains. “But the main damage comes from shrapnel.”

Thankfully in this instance, nobody has been killed in the attack – though two Bulgarian soldiers are left needing surgery and will be flown home as soon as possible. “That’s the end of their war and the start of their rehab,” says Kev of the patients. Meanwhile, the job of finding those responsible for the attack lies with new base commander Air Cdre Andy Fryer. With the help of a US Air Force Banshee, the RAF regiment ground troops and a high-tech long- distance camera system, it is not long before Air Cdre Fryer has the enemy in his sights.

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