1: Kush Dragon
15 January 2007, Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire
As the storm of rotor-blown dust settled over Jugroom Fort and a pall of ink-grey smoke drifted into the steel blue of the winter sky, the enemy emerged to gather up their wounded and count their dead. It was barely 1145 hours Afghanistan time, 0630 hours back in the UK, where, on an airfield on Salisbury Plain, a second Apache aircrew stirred.
It was day one of Exercise Kush Dragon, and the four pilots of flight Ugly were about to learn the tough lessons of that morning’s actions at Jugroom Fort. The lithe forms of eight Apache attack helicopters of 662 Squadron, Army Air Corps (AAC), squatted on the runway at Netheravon Airfield, barely visible in the pre-dawn murk, with their rotors sagging earthwards.
Netheravon sits on the eastern border of Salisbury Plain, the largest military range and training area in the UK. Over ninety-four thousand acres of heath and forest provide ground troops and airborne forces with a massive expanse upon which to undertake exercises. Every acre would be needed for Kush Dragon, a brigade-level rehearsal for the forthcoming deployment to Afghanistan.
Along with the Apaches of 662 Squadron, key elements of 12th Mechanised Brigade (12 Mech) had assembled on Salisbury Plain that morning. Come May, the Brigade would be headed for Afghanistan to relieve the battle-fatigued Royal Marines, and the Apache aircrews of 664 and 656 Squadron. After the bitter Afghan winter the enemy would be gearing up for a spring offensive, and the coming May–August deployment was expected to be a far from quiet one.
Kush Dragon was the culmination of months of preparation, and there was a buzz of excitement among the drab green Army vehicles sheathed in camouflage netting, the soldiers billeted under canvas and the Apache aircrew quartered at Netheravon. Prior to setting foot in the war-torn badlands of Helmand, this was the nearest these men would get to testing their mettle, and that of their complex military machines, in battle.
Over the coming week, ground forces of the Royal Anglians (The Vikings), the Worcesters and Foresters, and armoured units of the Light Dragoons would rehearse full-on battle scenarios among the rolling hills of Salisbury Plain. They would pit themselves against an enemy played by TA soldiers wearing typical Taliban dress and using the type of hit-and-run tactics so common in the Afghan deserts and mountains.
The war in Afghanistan traces its roots back to the 9/11 terror attacks on America. Terrorists used hijacked airliners to target the Twin Towers and the Pentagon; the driving force behind those attacks was identified as a shadowy organisation based in Afghanistan. For years, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network had been sheltered and nurtured by the Taliban, who provided a safe haven from which to plan, and prosecute, their attacks.
In the months following 9/11, Operation Enduring Freedom had been launched, a coalition war to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban – and al-Qaeda with it. Since then, the Taliban had been routed and a democratic government voted into power in Afghanistan. Yet the Taliban’s malignant force had endured and a string of al-Qaeda terror attacks had followed in Indonesia, Spain and – in July 2005 – London.
The ongoing war in southern Afghanistan was to drive the Taliban out of their principal refuge, Helmand Province. British forces spearheaded the Helmand campaign as part of a NATO-led coalition that worked to bring peace and security across the wider region. Elsewhere US troops concentrated on hunting down al-Qaeda. Exercise Kush Dragon was but one piece in a larger jigsaw of a coalition of nations at war.
On Salisbury Plain that morning, Lynx and Chinook helicopters were preparing to deliver airmobile troops into battle, while Apache and Harrier ground attack aircraft pounded the ‘enemy’ from the air. At Larkhill and Westdown live firing ranges, ground forces would contribute barrages of 81mm mortars and 105mm shells – adding to the nine million large-calibre rounds fired on the Plain since its 1897 inception as a military range.
With Kush Dragon continuing day and night for six days, it promised to be a noisy week for the inhabitants of the villages scattered around the Plain. This was a prospect the local populace seemed to greet with remarkable cheer. Among notices regarding church cleaning and flower arranging rotas, the Chitterne Parish Newsletter contained a small announcement entitled ‘Up on the Plain’.
This gave daily schedules for Kush Dragon, including parachuting, aircraft trials, fast jet activity, live firing and helicopter night flying. Otherwise, the newsletter concluded of Kush Dragon, ‘it should cause little disturbance’.
As Captain Barry ‘Baz’ Hunter headed for his 7.30 a.m. briefing on day one of Kush Dragon, he passed by the ground crews readying the Apache attack helicopters for action. He’d spent many a year doing the same job himself. It is a tradition of the Army Air Corps (‘the Corps’) that any soldier, regardless of rank, can aspire to be a Corps pilot, the elite of whom undoubtedly fly the Apaches.
Baz Hunter was a typical Corps recruit. He’d left school at sixteen with only the barest of qualifications and spent a short period working in a factory. Joining the Army was his route out of that humdrum existence. Accepted into a Junior Leaders regiment, he had raised merry hell and spent more time in the gaol than out of it. At first, there were doubts that he would make the grade as an adult soldier.
‘The gaol had been my second home. Then I got into the Corps and quickly began to grow up and calm down. While I was still a ground crewman, this guy took me on a flight up to Leeds. By the time we landed I knew that I wanted to be a pilot. But when I went for selection I was told I was too fat, plus I failed my maths test.
‘The interviewing officer told me that if I lost the weight, then they’d put me onto a crewman’s course – the first step to becoming a pilot. After three months of living on tomatoes and grapefruit juice, I failed maths again but was thin enough to scrape in, and they said they would take me “on risk”. I ended up as an air observer in Gazelles, doing navigation, and then I became a TOW missile operator on the Lynx. Joining the Army was a decision I would never regret.’
Some thirty years later, Baz was the Regimental Qualified Helicopter Instructor for 3 Regiment, Army Air Corps, and one of the most experienced Apache pilots in the Corps.
As he walked past the main hangar at Netheravon, Baz called out a greeting to the ground crews, hailing those he knew by nickname. Formalities are dispensed with wherever possible, in order to forge the closeness between ground crew and aircrew that is the backbone of the Corps.
He approached the Ops Room and fell into step alongside Steve James, one of his closest mates in the Corps. Steve was a Warrant Officer, and he and Baz had flown together in many theatres of war. Steve was also scheduled to be Baz’s wingman on the coming Afghan posting.
The eight Apaches of 662 Squadron would be deployed to Afghanistan as four flights of two aircraft. Baz would pilot one Apache; Steve the sister aircraft, and that would make up one flight, whose call-sign would be Ugly.
Baz liked to think that their flight had been named after Steve, who, with his squat, bulky form and receding hairline, was certainly no oil painting. A famously light sleeper, Steve looked pasty-faced and knackered whether on active operations or not, with dark panda rings around his eyes. This morning was no exception, and Steve was hardly the archetypal image of what a top-gun Apache pilot was supposed to look like.
Like Baz, Steve was a northerner and a ‘ranker’ – someone who had come up from the junior ranks. He’d joined the Army after doing passably at school, but getting in to ‘more than a bit of trouble.’ For a while he’d tried to handle working in an office, before realising there had to be more to life than that.
He’d decided to try the Army, with the aim of becoming a tank driver. But, two months into his training, he’d seen the Corps’s Blue Eagles display team flying Lynx and Gazelle helicopters during an air day. At that very moment he’d realised that this was his dream job.
Now, some twenty years later, Steve was an ace shot on the Apache and the Gunnery Instructor on 662 Squadron. Word was that he’d be applying for his officer commission any day soon. He was an excellent pilot, having seen action in many of the same theatres as Baz, and often flying alongside his senior Army Air Corps pilot buddy.
‘You’ve got guys from council estates who left school with no qualifications now flying Apaches,’ remarks Steve. ‘And that’s exactly how it should be. The Army is better than society in that it doesn’t write people off – it gives them every chance and allows their qualities to shine. It lends a hand to those who fell foul of the school system, and equally takes graduates from Eton and Cambridge. How many of those guys who went off the rails at school ever thought they’d get a chance to try to be an Apache pilot – let alone achieve it?’
Steve was a self-effacing kind of bloke, with a quiet, grey-man persona. But this belied his innate courage, and the fact that he had a razor-edged sense of humour. He had been awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery, having single-handedly rescued two aircrew from a burning Lynx that had crashed in the Omani desert.
‘The Lynx had taken off, didn’t pull up properly and hit the deck hard. It rolled over and ended up under my aircraft in flames. I climbed up the Lynx that was now lying on its side, jumped down and pulled the two guys out. Dunno quite how, as I’m a small bloke. I guess it must’ve been the adrenalin.’
Steve was rarely lost for words, especially with Baz, who was forever trying to wind him up. As they entered the Netheravon Ops Room, Baz couldn’t resist having a dig: ‘Morning, mate. You look like the walking dead. Slept well again, did you?’
‘How could I, with an old man like you in the next bunk?’ Steve retorted. ‘You were up and down for a piss half the night, Slack Bladder!’
In spite of his quiet-man persona, Steve had always been a hit with the girls. He put it down to his ability to make them laugh. Do that, and most women would quickly forget that you were as ugly as sin. But then he’d met and fallen for Tracey, a northern lass with sparkling eyes and a shock of blonde hair, plus a sense of humour as sharp as his own. Recently engaged, he’d put his days of womanising behind him.
As much as Baz argued that flight Ugly was named after Steve, Steve maintained the reverse was true. Outside of the Corps, people seemed to have an image of what an Apache pilot should look like: a muscular and square-jawed young warrior-Adonis. When they met the reality in the form of Baz Hunter – pushing fifty, hair flecked with grey and a slight beer gut to contend with – they were often more than a little surprised.
On the rare occasions that Baz made it to a nightclub or a bar and got chatting to a woman, he could pretty much predict how things would turn out. He had a mischievous glint in his eye and an open countenance that promised fun, and he was easy to talk to. But as soon as a pretty woman asked him what he did for a living, and he told her that he was an Apache pilot, that was generally the end of the conversation.
‘You try to convince her you really are an Apache pilot and the reaction is “yeah, whatever”. She’s expecting some blond, blue-eyed twenty-something with a square jaw and muscles like iron – not someone old enough to be her dad, with a double chin and a paunch. What she doesn’t know is that the cockpit is so cramped that if you did have any stature, or pumped muscles, you’d never squeeze yourself in there in the first place, let alone get out again in a hurry if your aircraft went down.’
Most women couldn’t abide a bullshitter. Invariably, the pretty woman would return to her friends, leaving Baz to shrug philosophically and to console himself with his pint and his mates. He didn’t really give a damn. He was happily married to Tracy, his wife of two decades standing. They had a feisty daughter, Jenny, who was just about to head off to university. He was far too content with life to worry about his chances of getting hit on by the ladies.
‘Funnily enough, every girl seems to have a boyfriend or a brother who’s an Apache pilot,’ Baz remarks. ‘The Apache fraternity must consist of several thousand pilots if you believe everyone you speak to. In fact, there are only about 120 of us. Which makes it even more amusing when someone refuses to believe you.’
Baz was one of the old and the bold. During thirty years’ service he’d flown more helicopter hours than just about any other Corps pilot. He’d done hundreds of hours in the Gazelle and the Lynx over Northern Ireland during the Troubles, flying missions that were often bordering on the insane. And he’d gone on to pilot the Lynx during the Balkans conflict, in a ground attack and troop transport role.
He’d ended up in Bosnia, flying search-and-snatch operations, hunting down Serbian war criminals. At one time he and his aircrew had been captured and held by the Serbs, which, Baz reckoned, was about as hairy as things could get. More recently, he had been one of only twelve British pilots sent to the US to train on the Apache, and he’d completed the first UK training programme. But somehow, Baz just knew that the coming Afghan deployment was going to eclipse all of that.
Since taking delivery of the first of sixty-seven Apache attack helicopters in 2000, the British Army had been unable to use them due to a dearth of trained aircrew. That situation had now been turned around, and the Apache Attack Regiment’s Afghan deployment marked their combat debut. It was high time the Apache programme proved that it could deliver bang for its bucks.
Baz and Steve took their places at the rear of the Netheravon briefing room, a couple of old hands among the young guns of the Squadron. Some of the new boys making up the aircrews were young enough to be the son that Baz had never had. At times, he felt something of a protective, fatherly instinct towards the twenty-somethings fresh out of Sandhurst. For them, Afghanistan was truly going to be a trial by fire.
To make up crewing shortages, pilots who had only just passed out from the Army Pilots Course, and straight after Sandhurst officer training, were being trained on the Apache. At first this had concerned some of the old and the bold, who worried that their lack of experience might be a handicap in combat. How misplaced such concern would prove: one of those new boys, Nick Born, would return from Afghanistan having won the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The Apache is a two-seater machine, with the front-seater concentrating on engaging the weaponry and ‘fighting’ the aircraft, while the rear-seater concentrates on flying the aircraft and navigating to target. To make things easier on the young guns, each was teamed up with one of the older, more experienced pilots.
Baz’s front-seater, Captain Timothy Porter, certainly had something of the archetypal Apache ‘look’ about him. A youthful twenty-nine-year-old, Tim had a shock of unruly blonde hair, piercing blue eyes and boyish good looks. From officer training at Sandhurst, Tim had graduated onto the Army Air Corps pilot course, flown the Gazelle for a short period, and then done his Apache training.
Afghanistan was going to be Tim’s first operational tour. With a wife and children back home in England, Baz figured that it was going to be tough on the young officer. But he reckoned that Tim would do okay. While he was quiet and somewhat shy, the little Baz knew of him pegged him as a competent and brave pilot; one not afraid of a fight.
‘Tim and I had established a firm, respectful friendship over the past year or so. We had flown together and socialised together…Like me, Tim has a competitive streak and can quickly turn from nice guy to full-on aggression when required. I knew we would be good in combat together.’
Baz had first run into Tim when he had failed one of the Apache training modules, and Baz had been tasked to get him through it. From that experience alone he knew that Tim hated failure.
Baz had captained many a flight in his time, and he little needed the experience of doing so again. Instead, the Corps had decided to place Tim on a horribly steep learning curve by making him the commander of flight Ugly. In that way the young guns would learn from the old hands, and vice versa, strengthening the fighting capabilities of the entire squadron.
Baz advised the squadron commander on the crew resourcing side of things: ‘As an Apache pilot, you don’t get to choose who you’ll be partnered with. I try to look at who will get along together. But we don’t put best mates with best mates. Instead, we try and have a rank balance, teaming up high experience with low experience. This is an important side of how we operate: the last thing you need in an Apache is crew conflict…Afghanistan was going to be like nothing the squadron had ever experienced before, and a true test of the pilot’s training.’
The Army Air Corps has a culture of openness and honesty, and if any pilot makes a mistake he is encouraged to put up his hand and declare that he’s messed up.
‘We’re more or less alone in the Army in being so open,’ Baz remarks. ‘We’re a tiny, close-knit team, especially in the Apache squadrons. Like Special Forces, we value merit as much as rank. But in Afghanistan Tim was going to be commanding a senior pilot, one who had actually instructed him: me. It took big bollocks to do that.’
Steve James’s front-seater was Captain Alexander Wagner, a twenty-five-year-old fresh from Sandhurst. Alex’s fellow aircrew ribbed him that he was the spitting image of Will Young, the cheesy Pop Idol star. Alex had acquired the reputation in 662 Squadron of being a ‘totally pleasant bloke’. Nothing was too much for him, and the Will Young jibes were like water off a duck’s back.
Alex was fit, smart and educated, and big on outdoor pursuits, especially sailing and mountain biking. He had no combat experience, having only just graduated from Apache training.
As Steve had been on a previous Afghan tour, he brought a wealth of combat experience to the flight. He had volunteered to join 662 Squadron’s deployment, so as to pass on that experience to those who were untested in battle. He knew Alex to be a good listener and someone who took criticism well. The two men planned to rotate command of their flight, swapping over every other sortie.
‘Alex was competent, forwards looking and loyal. I knew he’d share the load with me, and that we’d work decisions through. I also knew him to be a sound bloke, who just gets daft and smiles a lot whenever we were out on the beers. He was level-headed and I knew Alex would do all right out there.’
In candid moments, Steve and Baz admitted that the young guns did have one advantage over the old boys. The array of digital, computerised systems facing an Apache pilot in the cockpit is truly mind-numbing. A younger generation brought up on PlayStations, iPods and video games generally found the digital interface more natural and user friendly.
As for how the aircrews would perform on Salisbury Plain, their every waking hour would be consumed by Kush Dragon. This was the most realistic and testing military exercise that Baz had ever experienced: ‘From Netheravon we conducted duties entirely as if we were in theatre. Salisbury Plain had been cleverly divided and mapped to represent an area not dissimilar to Helmand. The enemy were created with soldiers dressed as Afghans who followed scripts. Those scripts included turning up at shuras [traditional village meetings], rioting and acting as Taliban taking on our forces and testing them to the full.
During that first day ground troops got to taste the reality of combat up close and personal, while fighting their way through the purpose-built village on Copehill Down. There, they learned the tactics of fighting in built-up areas. Giant twin-rotor Chinooks of 27 Squadron RAF practised casualty evacuations under fire as they responded to call outs from units hit by improvised explosive devices set by the enemy on the roadside, and detonated remotely using mobile phone signals.
Like sheepdogs protecting a vulnerable flock, the Apaches escorted the bulbous, slab-sided Chinooks in to their ‘hot’ landing zones, ready to pound the enemy with a potent array of weaponry should they show themselves. The Taliban had pledged to shoot down an Allied helicopter in Helmand as a prize, and the big Chinooks were the most likely target. The Apaches were supposed to find and kill the hostile forces before they could bring a helicopter down.
This alone was a daunting responsibility. At the same time as acting as Chinook escorts, the Apaches were tasked with finding, fixing and killing any enemy that might be hitting ground troops. That was the raison d’être of the close air support provided by the Harrier jets and Apaches, the key air assets available to British troops in the Afghan theatre.
As the Apache aircrews were painfully aware, much was expected of their forthcoming baptism of fire. Kush Dragon gave them a vital feel for the realities of combat.
‘In Kush Dragon we operated exactly as we would in Afghanistan,’ Steve remarks. ‘They had Afghans down there posing as translators, and we had kit that simulated a missile firing or locking on, which set the alarms screaming on the Apaches. They even had UAVs flying overhead, providing live video feeds of the battlefield.’
‘Nothing gets closer than an Apache’ is one of the favourite sayings of the Corps. It was a theory that was amply demonstrated during day one of simulated battle on Salisbury Plain.
‘At one stage we were proving so efficient at finding and “killing” the enemy that we were requested to back off,’ remarks Baz. ‘We were politely asked to go back to Netheravon as ground troops were not getting to complete the battle exercises that were expected of them.’
But in practice, the aircrew knew that Taliban would lurk among the civilian population, using Afghan women and children as human shields. And in reality, no British Apache had ever fired a shot in anger prior to Afghanistan. For both aircraft and aircrew alike, Afghanistan would be the place where all would get blooded.
On the evening of the first day of Kush Dragon, word of the epic battle for Jugroom Fort began to filter into the Ops Room at Netheravon. There were confused reports of a downed Apache aircrew, and of a last-ditch rescue mission. Every Apache pilot dreaded the prospect of their aircraft going down, and having to fight and survive for several days in hostile territory.
While the Apache’s cockpit is horribly cramped, it is the role of every pilot to rescue his fellow aircrew, and in theory the grab-handles on either sides of the aircraft can be used to strap on a downed airman. But most pilots believed their armoured aircraft – a ‘flying tank’ as Steve described it – was all but indestructible. Rarely had any of them practised the strap-on extraction method that 656 Squadron had used that morning in Jugroom Fort.
As more reports came in of Apaches evacuating casualties, no one seemed sure who had been wounded: was it aircrew or ground troops? Either way, the harsh realities of war-fighting in the Afghan theatre began to sink in. British forces were up against a battle-hardened and fanatical enemy, with tried and tested weaponry at their disposal. It was all well and good war-gaming for battle, but anything was possible out there in a real war.
As day two dawned the Apache aircrews attended a briefing with the Operations Officer, Sam Haldon, who presented all the latest available information from Jugroom. This was to ensure that they could better shape their training in reaction to real combat scenarios – both during Kush Dragon, and after, in the Apache flight simulators back at the regiment’s headquarters, at Wattisham Airfield in Suffolk.
There was a shared sadness in the Netheravon Ops Room when news came in that the wounded Royal Marine, Lance Corporal Ford, had failed to survive the flight back to Camp Bastion. But tragic though his death might be, it detracted little from the almost insane courage demonstrated by the Apache aircrews and their strapped-on soldier passengers. As far as Steve was concerned, such maverick daring was the defining tradition of the Corps.
‘We were gripped by the story of Jugroom. The fact that they had managed to strap the Royal Marine to the aircraft and get him home was amazing. We had discussed crew extraction in the past, but until this point we’d barely paid lip service to it, thinking it so wacky. All of a sudden it had taken on massive importance, with all of us discussing what we would do if we were to find ourselves shot down in Helmand.’
662 Squadron’s plans for Kush Dragon were quickly redrawn to include live rehearsals for extraction of downed aircrew or injured ground troops. Using a specially-designed strop and a karabiner attached to the flight harness, a downed pilot could clip onto the Apache’s grab-handles and be lifted clear of the danger zone.
‘We practised for all different scenarios,’ Baz remarks. ‘What if you were on your own – could you lift a downed pilot onto the side of the aircraft, or would you simply rope him to one of the wheels? Better a broken limb than to be left behind…We talked through all the options, while secretly hoping that we’d never have to put any of them into practice on the ground in Afghanistan.’
Pilots began to work out how they would stow the combat, escape and evasion equipment they might need should they go down in Helmand. Each had to fit in to his cramped cockpit an SA80-2K carbine – a shortened version of the standard SA80 assault rifle designed specifically for use by tank and Apache crew. Additionally, they had to carry enough water to survive in the Afghan desert, emergency food rations, cold weather gear, a Browning pistol, and the magazines of 5.56mm ammunition for the carbine.
On day three of Kush Dragon the story of the Jugroom rescue mission exploded in the media. It was all over the morning papers and the TV news bulletins. ‘Helicopter in dramatic rescue bid for Marine,’ declared the BBC. ‘Strapped to Apaches and dodging fire – how troops recovered fallen comrade’ was the Guardian’s headline. ‘Marines launch rescue by strapping themselves to Apache,’ ran the story in The Times.
The Apache aircrew of 656 Squadron were hailed as true heroes. As for the pilots of 662 Squadron, they were thrilled to see the Apache programme finally getting some positive press, and they concentrated on learning the lessons of the Jugroom incident well. Baz reckoned it had injected some hard reality into the aircrew’s training and mission preparations, making Kush Dragon a doubly realistic and rigorous exercise: ‘We incorporated the lessons of Jugroom into Kush Dragon, and came away feeling more than ready. We gelled as crews and as a flight. This was the start of our bonding as a tight team.’
Yet at the same time Baz knew that the future was another country – Afghanistan.
‘I’d trained all my life for this mission, and dreamed of flying an aircraft such as this one in combat. Yet still it was daunting. Those who’d never been in combat worried if they would perform to the high standards expected. Would they be any good in deliberate ops against an experienced and fanatical enemy? Would the Apache be the right aircraft for the job even? And every time we went into combat we knew we’d have to justify the cost of the aircraft.’
Kush Dragon had hardened the men for the trials that lay ahead. As for the Jugroom incident, each of the pilots of 662 Squadron hoped that he would have done the same thing in that fort, if faced with the same circumstances. To leave no man behind – that was the credo of the Corps.
And every man of 662 Squadron hoped that the same would be done for him, should his aircraft go down over the harsh mountains or lonely desert plains of Afghanistan.
APACHE DAWN Copyright © Damien Lewis 2008