Air Force Afghanistan: Episode 4

Friday 3rd July 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 fourth instalment of the series, a Chinook pilot practises landing in a dusty desert, a suicide attack in Kandahar city puts the base hospital staff on high alert and the Royal Marines welcome some special guests from the UK.

Built to operate in all conditions, the powerful Chinook helicopter provides a lifeline for the ground troops serving in the Afghan combat zone. Flying these bulky machines over sand, however, is not easy. The huge downwash created by the Chinook’s twin rotor blades during landing can cause a blinding dust cloud known as a ‘brownout’. Before they are allowed into the combat zone, all pilots must master the technique of desert landing. Instructor Flt Lt Steve Badham is in charge of training the pilots, and knows only too well the dangers of brownouts. “We rely solely on a visual picture to land out here,” he explains. “If we lose that picture, we have to abort the landing.”

Today, it is the turn of pilot Chris Jenks to undergo Flt Lt Badham’s rigorous training. After choosing a particularly dusty patch of desert, the rookie brings the Chinook in to land – with quite a bump. After a few more attempts, Chris begins to master the correct angle of approach and is soon touching down smoothly, despite the dust. The key is to keep the dust cloud behind the craft for as long as possible so that visibility remains until the very last second. Before the day is out, Chris has cracked the technique, meaning Kandahar has one more helicopter pilot ready for action. “It was good fun,” says Chris. “I really enjoyed it.”

Back at base, news has come in of a suicide attack on government buildings in Kandahar city, just 12 miles away. With heavy casualties feared, the base hospital is put on high alert. In charge of coordinating the emergency response plan is medical adviser Wg Cdr Kev Mackie. “Initial reports were of 300 casualties,” he says. “We’re the most capable hospital in the area so we’ve got to be ready to take the worst casualties.” As the medics gather to receive injured Afghans, the gate security must prepare to check the incoming traffic for suspicious behaviour.

Before long, Kev has brought together a huge team consisting of medics from 20 different countries, nurses and non-medical volunteers. “It’s a big response here,” says Kev. In fact, there are too many people swarming the area and Kev must send some away. In the event, Kev is able to call off the operation altogether, since local Kandahar facilities were able to cope with the fallout from the blast. Though not as large as first feared, the attack killed six people and injured a further 42.

Every month, at least 12 British journalists pass through Kandahar air base on their way to the front line in Helmand. Tristan Nichols, a reporter for the Plymouth Herald, has been embedded with the 42 Commando Royal Marines for the last two weeks. “It is difficult doing your job over here,” he explains. “It’s all about living, breathing and working with the marines.” Throughout his time in the war zone, Tristan has kept a video blog – even when his unit engages the enemy. One such occasion saw the lads come under attack from insurgents while in their compound. “It was pretty full on,” recalls Tristan. “It makes you realise this isn’t a training exercise – it’s very real.” Fortunately, the marines all escaped unharmed allowing Tristan to return home with a good story for his editor.

Elsewhere this week, the Royal Marines based in Kandahar welcome some special guests to the base. A C-130 Hercules full of Page 3 girls is due to arrive on a special mission to cheer up the troops. The girls disembark the plane and are immediately swamped by a fan club that has gathered. For a couple of hours, the girls chat to the soldiers, sign autographs and pose for a few pictures – a welcome break from the war for 42 Commando. “It’s pretty good for morale for the lads,” says one happy marine.

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