“Wake up! Wake up bud, wheels in 15 minutes!”
The cocoon I’d made for myself to sleep in consisting of old RAF blankets draped from the underside of the bunk above, is dragged aside and harsh fluorescent lighting invades the space. As I winced at the intrusion of the glaring light, the instructions kept coming;
“You need all your kit, we don’t know how long you’ll be away – hurry up mate.”
The blanket is torn from its security and dropped on the floor, along with my empty kit bag from the top bunk, an action designed to stop me drifting back to sleep and to reinforce the need to pack. It worked. By now the other guy on nightshift in my room is getting the same alarm call, and we plant our bare feet on the floor at almost the same time. He gives me the look of a tired, resigned man that I’m no doubt reciprocating, before I focus enough to look at the time. It’s 1400 local, I’ve been to bed less than 50 minutes from a 12hr nightshift.
Glancing across at Stevie, I’m aware that he has started to pack and not considered looking at the time, so I decide not to enlighten him, it may have the undesirable affect of turning his mood against what he’s doing, so I’ll let him figure it out for himself. I however, have been in this situation before, I know it must’ve been a difficult decision to wake us straight from shift. So it couldn’t have been taken lightly and taking what small comfort I could from that, I follow Steve into turbo-packing mode.
You get into a routine in afghan, shower before work, shower before bed – regardless of how tired you are or how long you’ve been up. Hygiene is important anywhere, but it is essential here, you can’t afford to “go down” with something because it means someone else has to pick up your load. So showering only an hour ago has saved me on this occasion.
With that in mind, the rule is dress first, pack later. If I run out of time, I can still go and my kit may follow, but I need to be ready for the next shout. Dressing is on autopilot. Again you lay your gear out for the next shift before you sleep, so you can grab it in an emergency. There are 4 to a room here, it’s cramped so we split it into 2 shifts, two on days, two on nights. It affords us a little comfort as there’s only two in a room at any one time. We can also use the beds of the other two to lay our gear out and the system works.
I’m dressed in seconds but in our tired state it feels like I’ve got thumbs where fingers should be. The only things left to don are my helmet and body armour. Now the packing starts in earnest. Big bag, big non-essential kit first. Get it in there, fill every corner of the bottom of the bag, then the stuff you may need closer to hand on top. Big bag filled, move on to your rucksack, this will have all the gear I need for 48hrs in it, so pack check, and check again. Personally I throw it all on the spare bed, check it, check again – ask Stevie to check and then pack it. If the bed is clear when I’ve finished, I’ve not forgotten anything. I do the same for him.
Time check – 1407 local. Seven minutes from eyes open to packed, not bad. Now the questions begin. Where are we going and why top the list. We have no way of knowing either but we still bounce ideas off each other. Once I see Stevie is at the same state of packing as I am, the little devil on my shoulder advises me to inform him of the time. He’s not amused, and that forces a wry smile from me; I knew he’d react that way and I took the pleasure in announcing it. Forces humour is a little different from anywhere else, you can take banter or you can’t, but it can be merciless. Personally, I love it. It keeps me sane when under situations like this I could slump into disinterest.
The corridor outside is now a hive of activity. For the first time we are aware of everyone running around getting their gear together. Raised voices announce that my walking alarm clock has returned and he bellows down the corridor that the wagons are outside to take us and our kit into work. Stevie and I grab our gear and head for the truck.
Opening the door from to our building showers us in blinding sunshine and searing heat – compared to the blast blinds and the air conditioning this is a severe shock to the system. Once again we squint as we trudge to the wagons. Big bags in one, rucksacks and us in another. Never get separated from your kit. A rule I live by as much as possible.
After the 5 minute drive to work, we are greeted by the unmistakeable thumping drone of multiple Chinooks, fired up and ready. We’re informed that we need to draw our weapons from the armoury and told we will be “wheels up” in 5 minutes. It’s now frantic. In your mind your questioning where you’re going, what you’re going to do when you get there and why, but you have no time to voice it. The expressions on the management around you are studied for clues. Do they look nervous? Are the sure what’s going on?
The crewman gives the thumbs up and we run towards the back of the spinning helicopter. The issue sunglasses preventing the majority of the dust getting kicked up into our eyes and the harshness of the light reflecting from the concrete. It’s noisy and cramped, our bags are lined down the centre of the chopper cutting our legroom. The direct heat from the sun outside gives way to a more claustrophobic heat inside, only the spinning blades above giving some comfort and movement of air. We need to get airborne soon, only the ram air cooling will help for the duration of the flight.
The ramp comes up at the back of the chopper, we’re ready for take off. I’m sitting at the front near the crewman and mime the question “where are we going?” he shields his microphone and shouts back the reply “Bastion!”
I’m happy with that. Kandahar to Bastion isn’t a long flight, but long enough to catch a kip. I also know that whatever reason for the trip at such short notice, we’re not likely to be put in any direct harm. Not right away anyway. We’re not going straight out into the green zone to recover a downed aircraft as most of us speculated at one point. Though that scenario is something we prepare for and carry out, it’s not something we look forward to. No-one should, but it does remind us ( should some amongst us need it) just what the guys on the ground do everyday.
The lift off is smooth and the nose pitches down and we’re away. From my vantage point I see the other 2 choppers beside us take a similar attitude and all three of us are soon skimming across the desert. The route is low and fast at first, with some fairly violent manoeuvres, I’m a little irked about this because I can’t sleep through it. But soon the pitch of the noise around us informs us that we’re climbing and before long we are high above the desert and hopefully out of reach of opportunistic small arms fire.
For the first time since a big head thrust itself in my face at 1400L, I relax. I know I may be called upon to do something as soon as I land but I can’t do anything about that now. Looking along the line of my fellow engineers aboard, I see some are already out for the count. Everyone here did a full shift, and were woken from a coma-like sleep. In many ways being woken from a sleep is worse than not getting to sleep in the first place.
Glancing outside I see a chopper relatively close to us just behind, and a little farther away the third cab is following still. We’ve all made it up and away with no dramas (an engineers first priority) and now cruising to our destination. A look down at the barren desert below throws up relatively few settlements and points of interest, so once you’ve done this trip once, you’ve done it.
With my head back in the aircraft, I fish my favourite piece of equipment from the top pocket of my jacket – my mp3 player. Normally some guitar orientated rock would drown out the thumping blades above but today (tonight to me) it’s something mellow, and one final glance around shows I’m probably the last awake.
With a wry smile at Stevie’s reaction to being told the time across my face, I close my eyes and with Eva Cassidy’s gorgeous voice serenading me…. I drift off to a much needed sleep.
Bastion can wait.