Air Force Afghanistan: Episode 5

Friday 10th 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 fifth instalment of the series, two Harriers from the Naval Strike Wing fly into Helmand to assist ground troops, a hi-tech unmanned jet takes to the air and an RAF corporal comes up with a novel idea to raise money for charity.

The Harrier jump jets based at Kandahar air field play a crucial role in the war against the Taliban. The pilots of the Naval Strike Wing must be on call 24 hours a day, ready to leap into action should the ground troops need support. In the operations room at GCAS (Ground Close Air Support), the pilot known as ‘Tremors’ gets the call to scramble from a village 140 miles away in Helmand province, where British soldiers have come under attack.

Within 15 minutes of taking to the air, Tremors is flying 30,000 feet above the combat zone and employs the sniper targeting pod beneath the fuselage to survey activity on the ground. However, the long-range cameras show that there are civilians – including children – in the area, meaning that the bombing mission must be aborted. Tremors returns to base with all his missiles intact. “It wouldn’t have been appropriate for us to have waded in,” he says. “The bad guys simply melted away like they tend to do around here.”

For 30-year-old Harrier pilot Lt Simon Rawlins, using the jet’s awesome firepower is not something to be taken lightly. “I personally don’t take any satisfaction dropping bombs on people,” he says. “It’s a last resort.” However, like all pilots in the Naval Strike Wing, Simon is willing to engage the enemy if it is absolutely necessary. When a call comes in from Danish soldiers taking heavy fire from an enemy compound, Simon takes to the air and releases a 1,000lb laser-guided Paveway bomb. Just half an hour after receiving the call, Simon has located and destroyed the enemy.

Aircraft like the Harrier, the Chinook and the Hercules have long been a fixture in RAF military operations, but Kandahar is also home to a more recent addition to the fleet. The new kid on the block is the hi-tech Reaper Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), a remote-controlled warplane operated by pilots on the ground. The men in charge of these UAVs are aware of their controversial reputation. “One of the biggest problems we have to deal with is perception,” says Gp Capt Edward Stringer. “People have a view that this is some kind of airborne killing drone.”

There is no doubt, however, that UAVs are impressive pieces of equipment. Weighing just half a ton, the Reaper can travel at 250mph and is armed to the teeth with a mix of Hellfire missiles and GB-12 laser-guided bombs. “[The Taliban] know that we have this kind of aircraft and it must scare them,” says Gp Capt Stringer. “They can’t see us, they can’t hear us and then suddenly, they’re hit by a Hellfire or a GB-12.” But with a price tag of £10million, landing a Reaper can be a stressful experience. “It’s really unnerving,” says pilot Mike. “We’re apprehensive every time we’re on the approach!”

Elsewhere this week, Cpl Jim Fowler of the RAF regiment comes up with an innovative scheme to raise money for a good cause. In aid of Help for Heroes, the charity for British troops wounded in action, Jim has decided to make and sell a calendar featuring some good-looking men and women stationed at Kandahar. With the help of a decent camera, the gift of the gab and 12 game participants, Jim soon has his project up and running – much to the appreciation of a number of onlookers. A few days later, the first proof of the calendar arrives from the printers. “I’m impressed with the quality of that,” says a happy Jim. “It looks brilliant!”

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