Marham crews in Iraq: Skirmish
During the past week in the Middle East it has become clear that the conflict in Iraq is now more stable than ever.But, while the RAF's role in Operation Telic is now mainly about watching and managing the skies over the war zone, yesterday's events served as a prompt reminder that flashpoints still present a very real threat.
During the past week in the Middle East it has become clear that the conflict in Iraq is now more stable than ever.
But, while the RAF's role in Operation Telic is now mainly about watching and managing the skies over the war zone, yesterday's events served as a prompt reminder that flashpoints still present a very real threat.
I boarded a VC-10 fuel tanker expecting to escort Villain, a RAF Marham Tornado, into theatre for a routine operation. Pilot Ben Shepherd and navigator Richard Parsons planned to spend their day monitoring enemy movements and assessing potential threats.
What happened next highlighted the ever-changing demands the RAF must face and the flexibility of Tornado aircrews.
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Even as the VC-10 entered Iraqi skies, carrying 70 tonnes of fuel which would keep Villian airborne throughout the operation, we were informed the plan had changed.
Villain, from 31 Squadron, was involved in a TIC (troops in contact) situation and was hunting for fuel several hours earlier than expected.
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Having been called in to support the ground combat, their role would include a show of force to scare enemy troops into submission - and, if matters escalated, they could deploy their side-mounted gun and other weaponry to meet the threat
They had been flying low and fast to dodge small-arms fire and any rockets that may be fired. As a result, they were burning fuel far quicker than normal.
They arrived at the tanker unscathed but needed to top up as quickly as possible to return to action. The VC-10's refuelling pod was deployed, trailing behind the aircraft, and, despite the pressure, Flt Lt Shepherd managed to get it in place first time.
After a few minutes, Villain rolled away, back below the cloudline and towards the battle.
The VC-10 carries no self-defence and, as a converted 1950s airliner, represents a huge target. We are above an insurgent heartland and the crew must maintain a constant altitude in order to stay safe.
Squadron leader David Currie said: “Whatever you think of Al Qaida or insurgents or whatever you want to call them, they are clever guys.
“They still have heavy machine guns and surface-to-air missiles which would pose a constant threat if we didn't stay out of range.
“This is not only for our protection but also for the aircraft we are serving. Once a Tornado is hooked up it has no counter measures - you can't have bangs going off when you have this much fuel around.
“We try to remain as inconspicuous as possible and we're not going to refuel over downtown Baghdad. But equally we have to be in a position which is convenient for the aircraft we are serving.”
Referring to the battle on the ground, he added: “Sometimes we are able to watch the battle unfold on the ground. You see explosions and tanks arriving. But once they are engaged with the enemy, there is not much we can do.
“Our role now is to be where the Tornado needs us, when it needs us. The last thing those guys need to be worrying about is how they're going to refuel.”
While all this is going on, the VC-10 crew must carefully monitor fuel levels. Villain has drawn directly from our supply and the VC-10 must not burn any more than absolutely necessary as this could leave both us and the Tornado stranded without enough fuel to return home.
Our only option would to be to land at a military airstrip in theatre - I find myself nervously checking that my body armour is ready should the worst happen.
Flt Lt Phil Burlingham, the captain from a Norfolk family, explains that the only method to avoid detection in a VC-10 would be to switch off all the lights and turn the engine to stealth mode. In simple terms, we would be a sitting duck - these airliners were not built for evading enemy fire.
Fortunately, the ground battle turns quickly and Villain soon returns for one final load to see them on their journey back to our base in the Gulf.
On many days the VC-10 would remain over Iraq for several more hours to offer other aircraft from the coalition the opportunity to extend their airtime as missions dictate.
But the crew's work for the day is done. We turn around and head for base, just as the sun sets over Iraq.
From this altitude it is difficult to imagine that the silent country below could play host to intense fighting.
Its scale is mammoth, and desert stretches for miles without any sign of human life - let alone the drama which we know has unfolded over the last few hours.