Air Force Afghanistan

Friday 17 July at 8.00pm

Concluding 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 final instalment of the series, an RAF sergeant returns to the UK to meet a new member of his family, a Hercules flies into the war zone to drop off a new engine for a stranded Chinook and a British magazine journalist makes a special trip to Afghanistan. When he and his regiment came to Afghanistan four months ago, RAF Sgt Benet ‘Jonesy’ Jones left behind his pregnant fiancée Lucy. Now, two thirds of the way through his tour, Jonesy receives some news from home – he is the proud father of baby daughter Maisy. “I wish I was there and I’m gutted I missed it,” he says of the birth, “but it doesn’t stop what I’m doing here.”

Two days and a long plane journey later, Jonesy is back in the UK with Lucy and Maisy having been granted a month’s leave from duty. While he will cherish this time with his loved ones, he still worries about his regiment back in Afghanistan and checks on their progress every day via the internet. “Even though I was leaving for a good reason, it still felt rough leaving them behind,” he says of his men.

In Afghanistan, Hercules pilot Flt Lt Chris ‘Chap’ Philips prepares to fly into the war zone to deliver a new engine for a damaged Chinook stranded at a forward operating base. Before the plane can take off, however, it must first undergo some body work to repair damage inflicted during a rocket attack on the air field. No one was injured in this particular incident, but the C-130 Herc, one of just four in Kandahar, took a hit. A few hours later, the engineers have finished the job and the Herc is fit to fight another day. “It’s the time that’s impressed me,” says Chap of the engineers’ speedy work. “I thought it was going to be out for a long time!”

Chap and his crew finally take to the air, only to run into further problems five minutes into the flight. Without warning, the Herc’s on-board defence mechanism is triggered and the plane releases a number of flares to divert any incoming heat-seeking missiles. Observers in the back of the craft scan the ground for activity, but can see nothing. Luckily, on this occasion, it is a false alarm – but the crew is not yet out of danger. Landing in the desert is tough, since the runway is just a quarter the normal size. When he does land, Chap must continue to stay on high alert in case of attack from the ground. “You never really switch off,” he says. “You can’t in this environment.”

After successfully dropping off the Chinook engine, Chap and the team pick up some more cargo and head to another base in the Afghan capital, Kabul. It is a long day at work, but the lads have a treat waiting for them at their destination – a freshly cooked Thai meal.

Back in Kandahar, the RAF regiment is about to receive a very different delivery. Nick Soldinger, deputy editor of Nuts magazine, has arrived with a photographer and a cargo of magazines, posters and calendars to hand out to the lads. But Nick is not only in Afghanistan to distribute gifts – he is also researching a feature about Nato’s work in the Middle East. While the rest of the regiment head outside the wire for a routine patrol, some lads stay behind to be interviewed – including Cpl Ben Wharton, who was shot in the chest just a few weeks ago. “I think it’s important for the stories soldiers have to be heard,” says Ben.

After hearing Ben’s story, Nick finds he has new- found respect for the soldiers stationed at Kandahar. “My admiration for these people has grown tenfold,” he says. “They are very impressive young men.”

Elsewhere this week, the inter-service football cup final takes place between the Gurkhas and the Marine Expeditionary Force; and rookie corporal Nathan Choules looks forward to returning home after six months of active service.

Friday 17th 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!”

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!”

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.

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.

Friday 19th 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 second instalment of the series, the RAF regiment embarks on a mission to allow locals access to veterinary care for their livestock. Later, three men from the same regiment are seriously injured by a roadside bomb. Elsewhere, a Navy lieutenant brings a taste of home to Kandahar; and a Chinook crew heads into the combat zone to rescue injured troops.

As the sun rises over another Kandahar morning, the RAF regiment prepares to embark on a hearts- and-minds mission under the leadership of Flt Sgt Rob Williams. The regiment’s task is to take an army vet into the community so that the locals can have their animals checked over. But the lads know that any mission outside the wire is dangerous, having recently been hit by a roadside bomb. “It was scary as hell,” recalls 21-year-old gunner John Burn, who was on top cover when his Land Rover took a direct hit.

Progress outside the air base is slow since the troops must carefully check the road for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) at regular intervals. On this occasion, however, the roads are clear and the convoy passes without incident. Once safely into a nearby village, US Army vet Cpt Ed Wilson performs health checks on sheep, goats and cattle for the gathered locals. “I think it’s important they know we’re not bad people,” he says. “We’re here to help them and they can count on us.”

At Camp Bastion, 90 miles northwest of Kandahar, an RAF Chinook crew serves a four-day stint transporting troops and supplies into Helmand Province. One of the crew’s most vital roles is as an immediate response team (IRT), where the men are called upon to rescue injured soldiers from the middle of the war zone. “I think the IRT is probably the most satisfying thing we do out here,” says Chinook pilot Flt Lt Andy ‘Scratchy’ Scrase. “You see a definite impact.”

Because Chinook helicopters are large and relatively slow, they are an easy target for Taliban insurgents. To provide protection during any mission to the front line, the Chinooks are accompanied by the awesome Apache gunship. This attack helicopter is packed with a variety of weaponry, including a 30mm Boeing M230 chain gun capable of firing 625 rounds per minute, two pods of 19 CRV7 rockets and eight laser-guided Hellfire anti-tank missiles. “The enemy forces are very scared of the aircraft because they know its capabilities,” says Apache pilot Lt Will Rouse.

When a call comes in from Sangin in Helmand, Scratchy and Lt Rouse rush to their crafts and take to the air. Two soldiers have been injured in an explosion in the heart of the combat zone and need urgent medical attention. With the Apache circling overhead to engage the enemy, the Chinook is able to land and bring the casualties safely on board. The injured men are then transported to the safety of Camp Bastion where they make a full recovery.

Back at Kandahar, reports come in that Rob Williams’s convoy has been hit by another IED. This time, a combat-patrol Land Rover has been blown 15 feet into the air, seriously injuring three men – including Rob. “It’s a sickening feeling to hear that,” says security chief Mark Hand of the news.It is six hours before the casualties can be freed from their vehicle and brought back to base. By dawn, they have undergone life-saving operations, but must now be sent back to the UK for further treatment.

It is up to Sgt Benet Jones – a close friend of Rob’s – to begin the process of finding the men responsible for the attack. “It makes you really angry – they’re just cowards,” he says of those who laid the bomb. Meanwhile, the young men who narrowly escaped the blast reflect on their experience. “Something like that will stay with you for the rest of your life,” says Mark Burns.

Elsewhere this week, a British Navy lieutenant tries to bring a taste of home to Kandahar when he sets up a tea party in the middle of the desert.

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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