Rise and shine


“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.

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To have and not need


A military landrover isn’t the most comfortable vehicle at the best of times, fill it with guys and girls in full battle dress and rifles then get it off the Tarmac and its enough to loosen even the best dentistry. Cramped and loud, there’s no creature comforts in there, no leather padded seats to cushion my complaining derrière which wastes no time reminding me of that fact every time the driver skilfully picks out another pothole. My view out the front is obscured by the head of the vehicle commander in the passenger seat, and with no side windows in the tarpaulin, I look out the exposed back door instead. I’m greeted by another vehicle exactly like mine, filled with the same number of similarly dressed troops, no doubt enjoying the same level of creature comforts and wishing they were somewhere else – just like me.

Bang.

It all changes in that instant – we’re hit and the ‘rover screeches to a ungainly halt. Inside we’re in a picture of panic, thrown forward and sideways, voices shouting, expressions of confusion etched on our faces.

Bang.

That’s the second vehicle hit. They’re stopped and gripped in the same shock as we are, 50 ft behind us.

Then the gunfire. “Contact Left!!!”

Now we move, and fast. It’s an ambush and we’re sitting ducks here – get out the vehicle, get out now. The training kicks in. We dismount the vehicles in the fashion we were shown, both vehicles are empty, no casualties. Great. Now let’s keep it that way.

Bang.

That was close. They’re getting rounds onto us. We’ve got to get their heads down. I bring my weapon up into the aim and fire two rounds in the direction of the incoming fire. I’m not alone. The rest of the squad do exactly the same. The air is filled with the deafening rattle of rifle reports and the smell of cordite.

We can’t stay here, we’re in the open.

A screamed command from the boss and we’re moving. The procedure is rehearsed and it starts to happen. It relies on speed and action, fire and move. I fire two more rounds and move under the cover of the other guys. I get into the aim and fire, they move. Fire and move, fire and move. I’ve found a little in the way of cover 20ft from the stricken first vehicle and I use it to pull a smoke grenade from my webbing. Remember the drill. Pull pin, check wind, throw. I launch it up wind and in front of us and it ignites on landing. The flame is visible from the canister as the smoke starts. It seems like forever but it’s only seconds before the smoke screen begins to take shape. A second canister thrown from the other vehicle assists in its formation.

“Move!!”

Peeling away under the cover of the smoke and the continuing fire cover we’re on the hoof. Fire & move, fire & move. It’s exhausting, breathing is laboured under the body armour but the adrenalin is driving the limbs and the mind. Pulling the trigger once more I get the “dead man’s click.” Working parts of the rifle are stuck to the rear of the weapon, I’m out of ammo. Magazine off, new one on. Fire. We’re picking up speed now, no casualties so far as I can see. Incoming fire still there. Fire , move , fire.
A bellowed command has us peeling into the cover of small wooded area, fire-move-fire- move- mag change – fire – move, it goes on.

“Stop!!!!”

Thank God.

I slump to the deck and look left and right to see effort etched on the crimson faces of my patrol. We are crouched and checking each other out, changing magazines, doing up webbing pouches, sorting our kit out, ready to react if required.
There’s an uneasy silence – no gunfire, incoming or outgoing. Just the panting of sweating troops and the metallic clicking of preparing weapons.

A figure looms out of the clearing smoke in front of us, he’s under 6ft tall, hands behind his back, beret clamped to his head like its glued there. “That was sh&t!” he bellows. “If that was for real, very few of you would have got out of there!”
I’m looking left and right, I’m met with the expressions all too common in engineers playing soldiers….it says:

” Oh no, we’re going to have to do this all over again til we get it right.”

This training is something we all do before we deploy. We train for the “just in case” for the “you never know.” It’s essential. We moan about doing it, we can bitch with the best of them, but deep down everyone of us accepts we’d rather have the training and not need it, than need it and not have it.
This is just a taster of what happens, it may not be quite what you were expecting to hear from the blog of an Aircraft Engineer – and that was my aim. I want to show you how diverse it can be, and over the next few blogs I will endeavour to do just that.

Now, any volunteers to help me pick up all that brass….?

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