RAF Marham ready for action in Afghanistan

THE call goes up - wearing their lightweight brown uniforms, pilots, navigators and technicians scurry out of a hut and within a matter of minutes a tornado roars into life as they set off on an unknown practice mission.

THE call goes up - wearing their lightweight brown uniforms, pilots, navigators and technicians scurry out of a hut and within a matter of minutes a tornado roars into life as they set off on an unknown practice mission.

In just a few weeks' time, members of 31 Squadron at RAF Marham will be over the deserts of Afghanistan doing the real thing.

On Wednesday, the minister for international defence and security, Ann Taylor, saw the squadron in action and met some of the men and women who will set off for Kandahar airbase next month to support ground troops in the fight against the Taliban.

The squadron of around 140 servicemen and women will leave loved ones over Christmas as they begin a three-month deployment.

Baroness Taylor was shown the hi-tech Tornados coming from RAF Marham which will provide support to the ground forces in Afghanistan for the next 12 months.

She commended the vast improvements in equipment which will help to support the troops.

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'The pace of change over the last few years has been phenomenal.' she said. 'They are equipped with surveillance capacity that wasn't there a few years ago. We are constantly trying to improve on the improvements we've already made. We are at the cutting edge and we want to be the best.'

She added: 'When we look at what these planes are able to do, there are so many ways they will make a contribution.

'Yes, they are armed, but they can do a great deal in the way of surveillance. It's amazing.'

She said: 'They [the squadron] are very keen to get out there in Afghanistan and show their skills and make a difference.

'They know that what they are doing there is important to security throughout the western world.'

As well as surveillance the Tornados will do low-level passes to de-escalate dangerous situations.

Wing Cdr Ian Gale, 31 Squadron's commanding officer, said: 'It's a funny thing to say, but everybody is really looking forward to it, even though it is Christmas away from home.

'It will be great to move into an area where you are in the thick of the action. That's a very privileged position to be in.

'Some of the guys have never been in operations before but some have been to Iraq five or six times.

'Although the Tornado is a combat aircraft, 90pc of the aircraft is surveillance and reconnaissance.'

The squadron has the highest proportion of women of any current fast-jet squadron, with two pilots and nine other servicewomen.

Pilot Flt Lt Jules Fleming said: 'We all just get on with the job. There is a good batch of us in the squadron.'

Cpt Jenna Gotts, aircraft mechanical technician, has already been out on operations with the RAF.

She said: 'You do not get treated differently as long as you do the same work. I find it strange when I have to work with females. '

She said: 'It's the first Christmas for me away. I think the biggest challenge is the amount of time you have to work. Here you get your weekends and your time off.'

Navigator Flt Lt Jim Harkin said: 'I am leaving a partner back here so she's going to spend time on her own. But there are plenty of facilities in Kandahar. There is the internet.

'It means they feel as involved as they can be. They provide all sorts of services.

'There is always someone at the end of the phone to talk to and that's really come on in the last five years. She will be alone - but she won't be.'

He added: 'It will be people with children that really suffer the most - but we get three months not six or nine months out there.'

Baroness Taylor said: 'We've got to be aware of all the needs of all those who serve in the forces.

'With the homecoming parades that more and more towns and cities are holding when troops come back we can see an amazing amount of public support for those who are serving on our behalf.'

Weapons technician SAC Jim Needham said: 'I've only been in the RAF a few years. It's my first time away. I'm really looking forward to it. This is really the first time I've got to do what I'm trained to do. My Dad has been a bit nervous about me going but we are just supporting the troops. It's just a job to me.'

Pilot Flt Lt Chris Wright said: 'This is my first time in Afghanistan, I have been to Iraq three times.

'The Tornado is still quite new out there but we will be the first ones to bring it into the winter.

'The hard thing to get across to family is that we are not in the same threatened position as the guys coming back.

'If I were to pick a seat to be in, this would be it. But that's quite hard to convey to people.

'Christmas will be very much a working day. Many of us will be flying. If you are out there on Christmas day, you might as well be flying.'