Air Force Afghanistan Premiere

Friday 12th June

Beginning this week is a brand new documentary series chronicling life for the British servicemen and women stationed at Kandahar air base in southern Afghanistan. In the first instalment of the series, a squadron of new recruits arrives in Afghanistan to take over the essential job of guarding the base. Elsewhere, a Harrier jet pilot embarks on a high-speed reconnaissance mission; locals pour into the base to set up the weekly market; and the tough guys compete for the title of Kandahar’s strongest man. Actor Dexter Fletcher narrates the action.

Kandahar air base is the gateway to the war in Afghanistan. It is home to 10,000 troops from all over the world and houses a billion pounds’ worth of military hardware. The base is also a bustling community in the middle of a desert, complete with fast food outlets, shops, sports pitches and even a couple of massage parlours. The man in charge of all of this is RAF Air Commodore Bob Judson. “I am the mayor of the town, if you like,” he explains.

Next door to Kandahar city’s domestic airport, the base features every kind of war aircraft, including jets, bombers and unmanned recon planes. At the heart of the operation are the GR9 Harriers, which provide air support for the troops on the front line. Jet pilot Rich Hillard – otherwise known as ‘Bolly’ – is on his fifth tour of duty in Afghanistan and has seen the air base undergo a major transformation. “This place has changed,” he says. “Other than being a long way from home, it’s pretty good.” Bolly’s latest task is to support a hearts-and-minds mission to the Kajaki Dam where ground troops are to deliver a 200-ton turbine. Bolly will take to the air to capture reconnaissance photographs of the 100-mile route to ensure that the trucks run into no surprises.

An hour into his mission, Bolly receives a call from ground troops under fire near Kajaki. The men need Bolly to discover where the rockets are coming from and drive the insurgents away with a show of force. Packed with high-tech rockets and bombs weighing over 2,000lbs, Bolly’s GR9 is up to the task. “My aim is to provide maximum noise on the ground to scare the guys away,” he says. But travelling at 600mph just 100 feet above the ground is a risky business. “I’ve got to stay cool,” says Bolly. In the event, the mere sight of the heavily armed jet is enough to send the Taliban running for cover, and the Harrier can return to base with all its bombs intact.

Every six months, a new squadron of British RAF troops arrives in Afghanistan to guard Kandahar air base. At RAF Honington in Suffolk, the latest batch of guards is preparing to leave home. Of the 30 men in the squadron, there are 18 brand new recruits – and it is up to Sergeant Benet ‘Jonesy’ Jones to look after them. “I’m pretty much their dad,” he explains. Among the new recruits is 21-year-old Nathan Choules. “I’ve never felt like this before,” he says as he prepares to board the military plane that will take him to Afghanistan. “It’s a good feeling though – I’m looking forward to it. This is the real deal now.” After saying their goodbyes to their families in Suffolk, the men take to the skies.

Upon arrival in Kandahar, the rookies have just a few hours to grab some sleep before work begins the following morning. Despite being nervous about the prospect of operating in one of the most dangerous countries in the world, Nathan is impressed with the state of the base. However, Nathan and his fellow troops will soon be heading ‘outside the wire’ for the first time, where conditions are very different.

Also this week, Kandahar opens its doors for the weekly market, at which hundreds of locals gather to sell their wares to the international troops. It is a great opportunity for the soldiers to experience Afghan culture without leaving the base – but the tradesmen must first undergo a series of rigorous checks to ensure they are not carrying any bombs. Elsewhere, some of the toughest troops in the base enjoy some down time as they compete in the Kandahar strongest man competition.

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