Friday, August 07, 2009

Coming Out!

According to the MOD, I am now allowed to Blog and talk about my life in the RAF without fear of censure by the military authorities as up until now, I should have pushed all these blog posts through the RAF Media-Comms people.

Anyway, as I am allowed to come out as a member fo the RAF AND a Blogger!

Whew a weight is lifted I can tell you.

I can now tell you all about my job and my day-to-day work, as long as I don't give away any details that might impinge upon "Operational Security" (or "OpSec" as it is called).

Henceforth and forthwith then I shall be able to blog a bit more and blog more I shall. And I shall try and keep you upto date as to what I am doing - although, lets be honest I am in an office job and I don't DO a lot. But I shall keep up with the what I have done, and thins and places I have been to.

And I promise that they won't be as long or as boring as in the past. Honest!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Everyday is a learning day...

In my last job I was an instructor at a training camp. It was the very best job, as the post gave me freedom to do pretty much what I wanted. Well I say that, but what we had to teach was strictly set down - but HOW to teach it was not, and my post was all about teaching trainees to be "better" airmen. The technical schools did their job at making them good technicians, but it was my job to get them to be good airmen; to expand their soft skills - teamwork, communication, common sense...

I did this through running a 3 day exercise at the end of their training course where as well as doing their primary role of working on aircraft or tele-communications equipment (or even as combat photographers!) they had to pretend to be deployed to a Forward Operating Base in a made up country in Africa.

This deployment was in reality to the far side of the airfield, but it was to a purpose built campsite that was "austere". This meant that there were no home comforts. Just tents to sleep in, a mess tent for cooking rations for food and a command bunker made from the same materials that they will find when they go into theatre - Hesco-Bastion. At the two entrances to the camp there were also Hesco guard posts that provided protection against “mortars” and such like. Here mobile phones were banned and they stayed on site for the three days working long days (from 6am-midnight) rotating between providing security for the site (guard duties and patrols) and working on the aircraft.

Anyway, to make the deployment more realistic, we as instructors would throw in scenarios for the trainees to respond to. These would be, at times, quite realistic...from vehicle patrols that would drive over a "Improvised Explosive Device" (the now infamous "IED") to foot patrols to recover "pilots" who had ejected from crashed aircraft.

One that I came up with was an extended one that ran for a couple of hours and relied on one of the trainees to help me out. This was a "Proxy-bomber" scenario.

In this I would wait until the night and take a section out on a foot patrol, having primed the last man in the team to go missing as we patrolled through a particularly dark area. The section would invariably not notice that he was missing until we returned to the safety of the base...

(He himself was primed to make his own way to a nice safe portacabin - with the luxury of a real toilet and a proper heater. There he would find a set of combat body armour (CBA) with the kevlar removed and stuffed with rolls of paper. These inside the CBA would look like sticks of explosive. Wires and an "aerial" would complete the gear - to make it look like he was wearing a "suicide bomber" jacket.

Now this is serious stuff. One of the things that has happened in the past (in Northern Ireland and Vietnam and a few other places) is the idea of a proxy bomber. The "enemy" would capture someone and strap a bomb to them and then send them back to the place that they want blowing up. This way maximum damage for minimal losses.

So. Our stooge, Paul, straps himself into the CBA and, at the pre-determined time, leaves the safety and warmth of the porta-cabin and walks across to the main gate of the FOB, where, by matter of chance is one of his course-mates.

As he gets close to the gate, he then starts to shout and scream for help (as he had been told to in his briefing earlier). This briefing had consisted of me telling him that he must scream for help and tell the guards that he had been captured by the enemy and they had strapped this jacket to him and then told him it was a bomb. He then was released and told to "go home". The enemy were watching him and the bomb jacket was remote controlled. They were about and would explode it when they were ready. His task was to gain entry to the camp anyway he could – to push past the guards, anything, short of actual physical violence. However, should the guards be calm – he was to calm down, basically he was to the guards in the way they reacted to him. Finally, if he was told to go into the Hesco’s by the gate then he was to do so.

This is actually the best outcome for this situation. If the poor lad IS wearing a bomb then the best thing for him is to be calmed down and brought onto the camp BUT placed in a location that will cause as little damage as possible if the bomb detonates. Whilst in this location he can then wait for Bomb-Disposal (or EOD) who will come to save him!

Back at the FOB…Our lad came wandering up to the gate shouting. The guard does exactly as he should do and issue a warning along the lines of stop or I fire. The lad stops and puts his hands up, but carries on shouting “Help” only this time he adds the name of the guard (who we’ll call “Jonesy”).

Jonesy asks his course mate what is going on and the lad replies exactly as he has been told. “I’ve got a bomb strapped to me! The bastards are watching and say they are gonna blow it!”

At this news Jonesy takes a step back. And pulls out his radio. But the other guard shouts at him not to transmit…IED’s can explode if a radio is used near to them. (Tick, very good, to that lad – he’s learnt something on his training!) Jonesy tells him to run to “get someone – anyone!” which he duly does…this leaves poor Jonesy on his own.

Paul starts to move forward again…”Come on mate, let me in…I don’t want to die!” But Jonesy stands firm. “Paul, mate stand still. Sit down there and be cool…” (Well done Jonesy; trying to calm the poor fella.)

Jonesy tries to talk to Paul and calm him, but as he does so, starts to panic a little and so Paul does as instructed and starts to do the same. Paul stands up and walks towards the gate…Jonesy steps back…and Paul gets up to the gate line. He goes to step into the camp and this sets Jonesy into a real panic.

Now Jonesy is “armed” with the standard issue L85A2 “SA80” assault rifle, with two magazines of 30 rounds of blank ammunition. As Paul steps forward one more time, Jonesy cocks the rifle and then as Paul takes one more step he takes aim and fires the rifle…AT HIS MATE PAUL.

Now I had been watching all this, without stepping in at any stage, but at this dramatic turn of events I had to.

Paul stood and looked at Jonesy. Then, rather comically, down at his chest, where he’d just been “shot”. Obviously there was nothing there and he was perfectly alright, but…but…it was what it meant.

I stepped forward. “Jonesy, put the rifle down and step back. What the fuck…What did you just do…What the fuck, man…SHIT YOU SHOT HIM!”

“I, I, I, didn’t know what to do…”

“So you thought you’d shoot me!” said Paul.

“I, I, I, er….shit. I…errrrr...”

“Right. Seriously Jones. Put the rifle down and go and sit down. Shit. You SHOT HIM!” I said. I honestly couldn’t believe what had happened. And to be honest I was a bit lost for what to do next.

I mean Jonesy had just “shot” hit mate. Someone who he had been with all the way through training, some 7 months. This was mad, crazy. How the hell do we…I…deal with this, and what it meant.

It meant that Jonesy and Paul’s trust had just been seriously attacked and diminished. It meant that Jonesy needed to think a bit more about what he might be faced with in the future. It meant that in 6 months time when Jonesy is deployed and on guard at a gate somewhere hot and dusty and scary…well how would he cope if this happened for real.

“Jonesy. You shot your mate. Can you imagine what the fuck this would have meant if this was for real? Can you imagine the front page of The Sun? ‘Cos I tell you what, mate, something like this would make page one. Big time!”

“I want you to go and have a cuppa in the Mess Tent, and have a chill out and think about this event. Don’t worry about it, but have a good think about it.”

And I did too. It made me think about what our young lads have to go through. How would I have dealt with that scenario? What would I have done? How would I have coped with Paul shouting and screaming? Would I have been a calming influence? Or would I have panicked like Jones and done something mad, crazy?

When I was a young trainee of 18-19 the biggest thing that we were faced with were the big bad Russians who were going to come across and bomb us. But we knew that in reality they were never going to actually do that. We would never really have to go to war, and certainly would never be face to face with the enemy.

But these lads…they have to go out to Afghanistan or where-ever the hell we are sent to next, and are faced with seeing and doing things that I would never have imagined. And it made me a bit scared, but also a bit proud. What I was doing was helping them to be prepared for such things…in a way I had never been prepared for. Maybe because of this incident – Jonesy for certain – would be better aware of himself and of what he may have to do in the future so that he doesn’t make a mistake like for real, where it may actually cost someone their life.

After a good sit down and a bit of banter and a good cup of tea, Jonesy was ok. He had learnt a bit about himself and maybe matured ever so slightly. He certainly had learnt a few things that might help him in his future career. Paul forgave him for shooting him…saying that if the shoe was on the other foot then he had no idea how he would have coped.

And again it made me think. How would I have dealt with it in real life? But for the moment I am lucky and I don’t have to think about how I would do it for real.

And to be honest, I hope I don’t HAVE to think about it for real and never have to face it.

Friday, July 17, 2009

When I knew...

This week, I got the news that my extension of service with the RAF was finalised and had been formally added to my record.

This means that I will now be able to complete 30 years of service it total, giving me an exit date of 29 October 2017. And this news arrived just a week after I had completed my 22 years.

22 years.

Shit. That's a long time. As someone on Twitter said - "If I'd have killed my first CO I'd be out of prison by now!"

Anyway, it IS a long time. Why have I spent so long in the service? The pay? The pension? Not having to worry about what clothes to wear to work?

Well, actually it is all back to a day in 1989. I had just graduated from my training course and was posted to 29(F) Sqn at Coningsby.

Here, until I had done my equipment courses and got a bit of expereince then I was pretty much useless to them at fixing I was given over to an experienced Corporal to do, well, stuff. The sort of stuff that makes a squadron work, like ohhhhhhh I dunno, sorting out the spares locker, sorting out tools, and sorting out the communications between the Hardened Aircraft Shelters (where the jets were parked) - the phone lines, the radios and so on.

So there I was checking out phone lines and I found that HAS 2 wasn't connected to the I went out and followed the wire and found it had been cut by some contractors doing some digging.

It was a gorgeous Tuesday afternoon in April - and I spent the next hour sitting in a hole looking for both ends of the wire, splicing them together, sheilding the cable and then filling in the hole.

Now those of you in the know will be able to say that as well as the Tornado F3's, that were based at Coningsby, the vintage aircraft of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight were also based there and in April they shake the dust of the aircraft in readiness for the display season of airshow to come in the summer.

So there I was in a hole, digging, on a glorious sunny spring day...and there over my head was a Spitfire, doing it's first practice display of the year.

And that was when I knew. That was when I thought it couldn't get any better. This is how and why I want to earn my living for as long as I can. Every so often an F3 would start up and taxi and take off and still the Spitfire flew. Old and new on the same airbase. 50 years seaparating them but flying still. And me there too.

And I was part of that. I was a part of putting those new aircraft in the air...I had no idea where that would take me and what I would do. But I felt part of it.

I think that we ALL want to feel part of something. It's what makes us human. We have a desire to have attachments...friends, teams, clubs, lovers, marriage. We want to be associated with others and what others have done.

In my case I wanted to feel part of an organisation that had done something. That was doing something. That still does something.

That organisation was and is the Royal Air Force. I am proud to be a member and I intend to stay in it for as long as I can.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Crossings the border...

Yeah. I am a bad person.

I need to update more. And I will. And I will stop doing such HUGE long blogs and will now start to do some shorter pithier anecdotes about my time in the RAF.

It seems my posts on my times in the service are the ones people like, so I am going to do more of them...

Here's a short one.

Two years ago I went on a "staff ride" to Poland. It was to visit the site of the Great Escape - Stalag Luft III. The first night we were there we watched the film "The Great Escape" in the place where it actually happened (and I got slightly drunk drinking very rough Polish vodka), and we camped on the actual site of the original camp, which is not really over-grown by the woods that are encroaching back onto the prison camp.

As we were walking around we could stand were the original huts actually were and we stood at the flag-stone that marks the entrance to the famous tunnel that was where the through. Anyway to get into the tunnel - if you remember the film - they had to dig through underneigh the heaters and through some floor tiles. And the floor tiles are still there. Or bit of them well...I stole a bit of it. It sits on my desk my little bit of history.

But that is not what I wanted to say in this blog. It's an example of a bit of forces humour.

On that trip we marched some 65 miles in three days from Poland into Germany to recrate a thing called the Long March which was a forced march carried out by British and American POW's in January 1945. We did it in the same time of year in very similar weather conditions...and it was flipping freezing!

Anyway at the end of the march we were to drive back in a coach into Poland to go to a Castle/Hotel that was once Herman Gorings hunting lodge. We were all told to make sure we had our passports in our daysacks to allow us to get across the border without any hassle. Which MOST of us did.

Apart from a lad named Noel. Noel Hellmann. Now the astute amongst you will have noticed that Hellmann is a bit of a Germanic name. It is. Very Germanic. So Germanic that Noel's Grandfather was actually German. So German that he was in the Waffen SS in the Second World War.

So there we are at the German/Polish border. And the boss down the front of the bus turns to the rest of the coach and says everyone get your passports out.

And Noel can't cos he doesn't have one. He turns to one of my pals and says "My passport is in my other bag in the 4-tonner [truck]. What am I going to do?"

The response? "Don't worry Noel mate. We'll sort you out. Anyway, you won't be the first Hellmann to cross the Polish border without a passport. Mind you the last one did it in a Mark II Panzer..."

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Learning to Fly...

Ok, Ok, I know, it's actually been AGES since I blogged, in fact almost a whole lifetime (well it is for Lily anyway)...but I have a bit of time on my hands right now, holiday from work and all that...

Anyway, a while back I asked what people would like to read about, and I mentioned a couple of things that would be good to blog about, and I did the "Scuds away" piece. The other one that was asked for was about my trip in a Tornado F3. So I shall do that for you now.

As you may know I am in the RAF, and I have been for the last 22 years. Over that time I have seen and done many many great things (beginning to sound like Rutger Hauer in Bladerunner, sorry) and one of the best started out on a normal working day. Way back in about 1993 or 94 when I was still working on 29(F) Sqn.

Myself and "Milburn" (a lovely lad from 'oop north' who reminded us of the dim one from Last of the Summer Wine - all muscles and accent) were standing at the Radar desk in work. A normal Tuesday, we were both Junior Technicians, and we were both fairly keen and both looking for the next job to do to pass the time, when all of a sudden on of the controllers came up to the desk and said...there is a back seat trip going this afternoon...and it was the radar desks turn...was there anyone who would want to go?

Back seat trip. Yeah. That's right. A trip in the back seat of the two seat Tornado F3 fast jet fighter.

My Chief was standing with us both and said, "Well you two are you fancy it?"

Of course we flipping well did! We both looked at each other...who would get it. I'd been on the sqn the longest out of both of us, but that would be a crap way to decide, so the Chief made the decision. "Heads or tails?" Milburn called tails, but it came out HEADS! I was going...

Off I went to get my head measured - yeah - head my bone dome helmet would fit, and then over to the doctors to make sure my ears and bits were ok and that I could safely fly without the internal bits of me popping out of places that they shouldn't if we were to pull a high G turn. I am talking intestines and ear canals and eyes and stuff like that.

So I passed that test and it was reassuring to know, that at that time, my insides were not likely to become outsides and went back to the sqn for briefings.

Briefings on how to use the ejection system. Briefings on how to use a parachute. Briefings on how to use the intercom system. Briefings on how to use the oxygen system. Briefings on how to use a sick-bag. All really reassuring stuff again.

And then about an hour before the flight I went to get dressed. Now you may think that a pilot looks really cool with the helmet and the jacket and the jump-suit and the boots and the G-suit...what you may not know that the cool stuff is just on the outside.

Under all that cool gear, about as far away from a pair of Raybans as you can get, are the long-johns, and the big thick woolly socks, and the polar necks. So not cool. And all this I had to put on before the jump suit. I was then measured for the G-suit; basically a pair of inflatable chaps that are designed to keep the inside bits inside when pulling high_G, their other role is to push down on the delicate bits when pulling said high-G to force the blood away to the extremities - in particular the head so that you don't blank out. The effect is rather like being placed into a vice...

Anyway. After being suitable dressed (and made to wear a head-cap that a lad at a Bar-Mitzvah would be jealous of) I was pushed through to meet my driver for the trip. Now I knew all the pilots. I worked with them day on day, I took de-briefs from them on the faults that the aircraft had picked up during flight, and I hoped for a particular one, and thankfully I got him. A lad named Lee Fox. A great pilot, who I had once seen do the best bit of low-flying ever. In Cyprus he participated in a "beat up" of the air base, by flying up over the Line (where we parked the aircraft) around the Tacan Navigation tower, and then the swinging round the other way behind the hanger, and then across the taxiway at about 50 feet...

But I digress. Lee asked me what I wanted to get out of the trip. I wanted to go fast. I didn't care about aerobatics, or going over my house or anything. I just wanted to go FAST.

So after more briefings about the flight, off we went to the aircraft. These were parked in individual hangers or Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS) which were supposed to withstand the impact of enemy (read Russian) bombs. These had a fundamental flaw. Whilst the building could withstand a blast. The effect of the blast inside them would kill everyone inside simply by the blast wave itself. Oh well. We only found this out after the First Gulf War...and by the time we had, the Russians were our friends anyway.

So into the HAS, and then into the cockpit. I was strapped in by one of my colleagues and told how to avoid airsickness (keep looking at the horizon), but given a couple of sick bags anyway.

The jet started up...first one engine and then the ladder was taken away and the cockpit canopy was lowered and the left engine was started. This all made me feel like I was in some sort of MASSIVE roller coaster ride. You know how you get that nervous sickly feeling in your stomach as the coaster goes UP towards the first drop, with the click, click, click, click of the ratchet pulling you up...and you KNOW that any moment the ride will kick in.

But this lasted longer. The click, click, click, click in my head got worse as we taxied down the road towards the end of the runway...all the time Lee in the front seat was doing his pre-flight checks and talking to the Air Traffic Control Tower, and my nerves were getting worse...and then we made the last turn onto the end of the runway.

All of a sudden we were still. It was surprisingly quiet in the cockpit. The final "OK to go" was given and Lee asked me one last time "are you ready?"

I nodded. My mouth was to dry to speak. The thing was it was pointless me nodding at the cockpit on an F3 was a tandem one - me behind Lee, and so there was no way he could see me nodding. "Alex? OK to go?" one more time.

This time I rasped a "yea"...and then I looked down. The version of F3 I was in was a two seat trainer, so I had a set of controls in the back as well as all the usual Radar gizmo's that were usually there for the Navigator - or more rightly Weapons Operator to use.

So I looked down. The throttles moved forward very quickly and the noise intensified. All of a sudden the fields and buildings by the side of the runway started to move fast. They started to move very fast. Very, very fast. I was pushed gently, but firmly back into the seat and we gently lifted off. There was a clunk as the wheels came up and Lee's voice broke through. "You want us to do a high-G?"

By this he meant do what we called a high-G take off. By this they meant flying low along to the end of the runway, and then the stick being pulled back quickly and hard, the throttles pushed forward fast and the jet flips up onto the vertical and we go straight up. By this I knew that I would be sick. "NOOOOOOOOO" I said a little too loudly.

Lee giggled and we slowly gained height over the Lincolnshire countryside. The clouds were angry all about us with a summer thunderstorm brewing. "We need to find a hole in the clouds, cos flying through those is not fun."

Skirted about for a bit and gained more altitude and we flew up through a gap. The clouds were forming the classic anvil of a thunder storm, and were very dark...someone was going to get a soaking, but then almost instantaneously we punched out into glorious sunshine above them. It was absolutely glorious up there. "Do it then" I said "Let's go fast."

We were flying over Spurn Head - clearly visible below.

"Oh noooooooo" said Lee. We can't yet. We need to get 12 miles out to sea. We can't go supersonic over land...we'd shatter too many windows, and generally piss people off, with he sonic boom."

For those 12 miles I got the click, click, click, click, back again in my head...and then...

And then..."Ready?"

"Yes" I replied without thinking.

And the throttles moved forward again. Lee banged them forward quickly and we jumped forward. It was the biggest kick in the pants I ever had. But it was an odd kick because as I knew we were going forward I was pushed back into the seat. I was pushed back like some bouncer firmly taking hold of both shoulders and PUSHING me firmly and quickly out of a club. Like a BIG bouncer was doing it.

We leaped forward quickly and I could see on the screen in front of me a representation of the speed. We went from a couple of hundred knots to fast. FUCKING FAST. Within seconds we were up to Mach 1. A second or two more I saw the throttles rock over into the reheat position and the speed really kicked in. Mach 1.3...1.4...1.7...1.9....MACH 2. Curiously there was silence. We had left our sound behind us. Travelling twice the speed of sound, over 1400mph...there was no sound, no roar of the jet engines, no sonic boom. Nothing. Whilst I knew there was noise and chaos behind us, around us was only sky and calm and the sound of both Lee and myself breathing slowly in my headset.

Outside, the sea was a blur. The clouds swept by like a crazy speeded up sequence in some natural history television programme. It took just 3 minutes to travel the 60 or so miles. And I was blown away by the feeling of the speed. I was still pushed back into the seat, head forced back and stiff, unable to move my arms or legs. I tried to raise them, more out of curiosity but was unable to do so. I couldn't move...and then the throttles were pulled back and the air brakes came out and we slowed rapidly it was like the bouncer had disappeared and my whole body moved forward in the seat until the straps took hold and pulled me back.

I looked up and could see the fuel gauge. As we speed across the North Sea, the coast of Norfolk grew larger by the second and the gauge had dropped by almost half.

"It uses up the fuel going that fast, so we don't really have long left in the flight, Alex. About 15 minutes...before we have to turn back. Let's go back out to see and do a bit of messing around."

"Its a twin stick Alex. Do you want a go? Just concentrate on the stick...I'll sort the throttle and the pedals."

"Yeah...yes please!"

"Ok. You have control!"

My hands flew to the stick and grasped firmly.

"Try a roll, just push the stick over to the ri......ugh"

As he said "right" I pushed the stick hard and fast. We corkscrewed through the air like a fly spiralling out of an air conditioning outlet..."Next time move the stick very gently, mate. It's quite responsive up here...

"Pull back, gently, gently, gently"

The nose lifted, slowly. The sea disappeared. The horizon went. The blueness of the sky was all there was, and then Lee told me to hold it. "Look up" he said.

I looked up. But my brain couldn't comprehend it. It should have been sky. But it was sea. I was upside down! My arms went strangely floppy - for a very brief second I was weightless...and then Lee broke my reverie. "Roll and then push forward."

I rolled - gently this time pushed forward and we dived. We lost altitude rapidly and I felt Lee's hand through the feedback on the stick...and we levelled out. "Well done, mate. Not many people do a full roll on their first flight. I have control!"

I let go of the stick and Lee took over. Some gentle aeros. We swept. We soared. We dived. We looped. At one stage we dived really fast and then pulled up sharply over a fishing boat.

We swing around a gas platform and Lee took us up high and we swung back in the direction of Coningsby and home. And as we did all this, that click, click, click, click was gone. Long gone. And replaced by a soundtrack. For some reason Pink Floyd came into my head. Learning to Fly.

Over and over I heard this lyric:

"Above the planet on a wing and a prayer,
My brother Haley, a vapour trail in the empty air
Across the clouds I see my shadow fly
Out of the corner of my watering eye"

and I felt the exhilaration. I felt what the pilots feel each and every time they go up there. I felt the ecstasy. I understand why they did it, and why they do it day on day even though everything about it is danger and fear and worry and potential disaster. The freedom. The control. The ability to do anything and go anywhere and anyhow. It was just...just...words fail me. I wish I had the ability to say exactly how it felt and what I felt.

But I can't.

But the last lines of Pink Floyd's song manage remind me. Everytime I hear it I get the hairs on the back of my head standing up and an odd tingle in my arms...and I am reminded of one of the very best expiriences of my life.

"There's no sensation to compare with this
Suspended animation, a state of bliss
Can't keep my mind from the circling skies
Tongue-tied and twisted just an earthbound misfit, I"

And then I think on. I think about this verse. It is true for me now. I often look to the sky when I hear a fast jet fly over...and I think about that trip and I think that Dave Gilmour was right. I am just an earthbound misfit. But for 30 minutes one Tuesday afternoon I was a flyer.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Lily May Caitlin...

Born at 2:42am on 18th Feb 2009 - weighing 7lbs 4oz - Lily May Caitlin.

After a relatively short, but awkward labour where Tee had developed back pains during the contractions (as Lily was facing the wrong way round) Lily was born naturally albeit in the Operating Theatre whilst being prepped for a C-Section.

Lily had got herself distressed although Tee had managed to get herself 6cm dilated before we got to the hospital (for the second time after being sent home earlier in the afternoon!).

That distress meant that Tee had to go upto the last few contractions without any pain relief (bar a couple of puffs on the Gas and Air). So a lot of time was spent trying to attach probes to the babies head to monitor the level of distress - and all of a sudden there she was fully dilated!

A normal birth was tried (three pushes in the labour room) before Tee was moved to the Theatre to prep for a C-Section. A Spinal was inserted for pain relief and again a natural birth was attempted whilst the C-Section was still considered.

With the help of a small cut and the use of forcepts Lily May Caitlin was delivered by a team of about 9 doctors, nurses, midwifes and theatre technicians. I looked around the room to see my taxes for the last few years being very well spent to deliver my new baby daughter...who was then whisked away to be cleaned up and checked over before being placed into my arms by Tee's head.

Mum was allowed to recover and deliver the placenta and get some stitches whilst Lily and myself were taken to the recovery room. Where I fell in love all over again...with mum and daughter. And had a bit of a cry...

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Scuds away...

Ok so this one then. I mean I'll probably blog the rest in due course, but it's a good place to start. Even more so as it was the oldest one of the lot I listed. So here we go...

Cast your mind back to 1990. What were YOU doing? Me I was a young liney on 29(F) Sqn. A liney? Well, when you go to the airport and see the fellows in the hi-viz jackets waving at the aircraft? Well, that's a Liney. So called cos they work on a line of aircraft. They - we - didn't just wave ping-pong bats at the pilot, they also service the aircraft and refuel, all that garage mechanics sort of stuff to make sure the aircraft are safe to fly - but I digress. So anyway I was a Liney and in 1990 Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The west flew troops and tanks and aircraft and ships 9well not flew the ships) out to the middle east to make sure that we got our oil ba-Kuwait was liberated...and I was there. Sent out on the 7th Dec 1990, just in time for the war to start in January 1991...

So there I was. In Saudi Arabia. At the middle of no-where - working on Tornado F3 fighters. Occasionally I worked on the avionics equipments, the interception radar, the IFF, the radios, the display equipment, that sort of thing. We were busy. We had 18 aircraft that had to be kept at a 95% serviceability rate - meaning we had to work quickly, expertly and smartly to fix the aircraft...and if you know anything about the Tornado F3 you will know that THAT isn't easy. They are-were-just about are (still) - remarkably unreliable. They break down just by looking at them. So flying them over the desert with a full weapons and fuel load for extended periods was always going to be a bad thing!

So we were busy chaps. And to make matters worse, once the actual war had started our squadron shift was put on permanent nights. The deployment out there was actually a 43/29 composite Sqn and for some reason they decided to put 29 on the Night shift...for however long the war was to be. (I think they actually expected the war to be a very short one and not drag on for so many days.)

The war had started and for obvious reasons we were even busier than normal...It was a night that would stick in my mind forever...As you may remember after the first night of getting kicked senseless Saddam started to retaliate and thought that firing Scud missiles. To be honest his air force was shot and it was the only way he could do it...and this night he started it big time. He tried to bring Israel into the war by firing Scuds at them, and had just launched his first salvo over there...

We knew this because in our crew-room we had CNN on the TV constantly. We learnt more from the war from those buggers than our own intelligent officers (an oxymoron if EVER there was one!) and we spent every moment we could watching. We had a fairly good tea-bar crew-room, with a boiler making tea and coffee, TV and video player, a huge stack of books sent to us from publishers in the UK, magazines (likewise) and a load of goodies (cakes and chocolate and sweeties) sent by ordinary families. It was cool. It also had chairs clustered around the walls of the room which to be honest was about the size of a suburban semi's lounge-diner.

Most of these chairs were dining chairs, not very comfortable, but there were also two leather arm-chairs...fantastic huge things that took the space of two normal chairs each - but were so comfortable that if anyone tried to move the chair out - the person trying to move them would be mobbed and sent out to do the chemical sentry duties (not a good task - it basically meant that you were the guinea pig in case of a chemical agent attack).

This night, as I said, was busy, but not so busy that Taff Jones (from Pontifract) and I weren't unable to get into the tea-bar for a cuppa. I got a tea and spied the comfy chairs empty. This was odd as pretty much all the time they were always in use - mostly by the armourers (who were never really busy) and it was almost unheard of to have them BOTH free. The TV reported that Saddam has just launched another wave of Scuds at Israel and Taff and I made our way to the seats and to watch the story unfold on CNN.

JUST as I go to sit down...I am in mid-squat...I have a cuppa in my right hand...and then there is a bloody huge BANG. Imagine the loudest bang you have ever heard. Now double it. Then there was a second bang and the whole room lit up with an orange glow.

"What was that?" I said, rather stupidly really...what ELSE could it have been? But I wasn't really expecting anything...

"GAS, GAS, GAS!" was the shout somewhere behind me, and my reaction was the throw the tea away onto the floor and go for my gas mask - respirator, we call it - and get it on as quickly as possible. In training, the standard operating procedure is that in a war-zone where there is a risk of the use of chemical agents (as there was in 1991, but there isn't currently in say, Afghanistan) you have to get your ressie on in under 9 seconds to stay alive. Then get to cover.

That night, I got my ressie on quickly and then made turned to my left to head towards the door...which was filled with people trying to get outside and to the air-raid of the armourers (Derek - a big lad) decided that he wasn't going to stay inside the crew-room and ran for it. His impetus added to the crush at the door was enough for me to say sod it and go for the OTHER door at the other end of the building. It was a longer way, but given the crush to get out it would be quicker to get to the shelter about 20 yards away from the building we were in...

I ran for it...suddenly gasping for breath inside the gas mask. Suddenly sweating more than I have ever sweated before...and this was my moment. This was the defining moment for me of the whole experience of the war there.

The sky was still orange - the time from the explosion to now had been only 15-20 seconds (if that!) and it was all wrong. It was about 3am...what the hell was going on. I slowed my run and looked to the right. There was a trail of smoke from the ground (about a mile away) up into the sky, where there was a fireball billowing...leading in to it was another trail of smoke from higher in the sky. The fireball had smaller trails of smoke coming out from it...something I recognised years later when I saw the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion on TV again. It was pretty clear what had happened...

But I saw it as something else...I discounted the smoke trail from the ground and thought that this was it...That the Israelis had had enough of the Scuds and had launched a Nuke at Iraq.

Now this sounds stupid, but there had been speculation that Israel might retaliate and that nuking the Iraqis would be one of the possible ways. Even more stupid, Dhahran was at least 100 miles from Iraq! So even if Israel had thrown a nuke, there was no-way the bast and noise would have gotten to us in Saudi.

But I didn't think about this. I was 20. I had not been trained for this. My training had been that we were going to stay in a hardened aircraft shelter and send off our aircraft and MAYBE we might get bombed by the odd Russian - but lets be honest there was never a REAL danger of a proper war with the Russians was there. So here, in the desert, with the threat of chemicals and bombs and all that stuff - a very real threat of that - scared the shit out of me.

I have never been so scared. And I hope i never will again. And this fear - had driven me to a deep down petrified state. I was to scared to actually cope with the situation and I lost all sense of reality. So when I should have known that the smoke trail from the ground was a Patriot surface to air missile (SAM) hitting and killing a Scud entering the atmosphere - I saw and heard in my mind the Israelis firing a nuke at Iraq. "They've fucking done it! It's a fucking nuke, a nuke, a nuke...It's gone fucking mental! Fucking hell! FUCKING HELL! What the hell am I doing here...?!?" These were the stupid thoughts going through my head...

I was shaking as I put on the rest of my anti-chemical protective clothing...I shook as I tried to tie the laces of the over-boots, and struggled with the thick rubber gloves...and I kept saying the same words over and over again. Thankfully the shelter I was in was quiet and there were not many people...and after a few minutes I was fully dressed and I sat there. And sat there. For what felt like an hour. I don't know how long we were in there...but after an age the all clear was sounded...I slowly crawled out of the shelter and stood and looked around. I was reluctant, like everyone else, to take off my mask. We all looked at each other, not wanting to be the first...and then finally someone went for it...and we all followed suit...Breathing shallowly at first, and then deeply drawing in the fresh air to clear our lungs of the claustrophobia of the gas-mask...

The discussion was what the hell happened? Did you see it? What was it? That sort of thing...One of the aircrew was walking past and we stopped him - what was it we asked?

And he told us the HAD been a Scud. The Iraqis had sent a load across to both Saudi Arabia AND Israel...they were not guided - it was basically like throwing a stone over a fence that is higher than you can see over. You launch it up and over - knowing that it will come down in next doors garden - but you don't know if you are going to hit next doors pond, the dog, or the greenhouse. And this is what Saddam had done. But this time he had got lucky...his Scud was heading straight for us. It was not only going to have hit Dhahran, but also - and this I was certain of in retrospect - was heading direct at us - at ME. I swear on my death-bed that the bloody thing had my name on it.

But the Patriot battery based just behind us had been on the ball. We later found out that the Patriot that had launched had done so AUTOMATICALLY. It was in it's normal standby sweep mode and detected the incoming target, decided it was a threat and launched a missile to shoot it down. And it did it without any human hand interfering.

The first bang had been the missile launching - and getting to MACH4 almost immediately and the second bang was it hitting and exploding the Scud high in the sky...nothing to do with Israel. Nothing to do with nukes exploding over 100 miles was obvious. But at the time...I'd been stupid and hadn't really thought about what was really happening.

When people say war is chaos and confusing I know it is. And my war was crazy and odd. We lived in a hotel-like compound and rode a red and white bus to and from work. We walked down the road to the supermarket and bought chocolate and donuts. And then we went to work and got scudded. It was bizarre. Unreal.

My war confused me and made me selfish and uncaring. I think that before I went to Saudi I was no where as selfish as I was after - and still am. It made me think about myself too much and think the world was a crazy, mad, mixed up place; that I found it was difficult to understand. Maybe this whole experience was a metaphor for that...I was confused and didn't really understand what was happening.

I would like to say I am proud of what I did in Saudi...but I can't. I did things there that I didn't understand and still don't. I'd like to say that I was brave under fire. But I can't. I was scared. Shit scared. More scared than I had ever, ever been. And now I just know that I kind of want to redeem myself. I want to do something to make ammends for myself...and I have been thinking that I want to go out to Afghan and do something out there. But that itself is really selfish - I have two kids now (and another one to be born ANY DAY) how selfish would I eb to go to somewhere that is probably more dangerous...I think maybe a lot of the things I have done since - and the choices I have made in my life have been influenced by that moment. I feel like I want to put it right. It feels like a pot-hole that needs to filled in so I can continue on my way through life.

We were, and I am still in, awe of Patriot and became firm friends with the Americans operating and maintaining it. We visited their site and talked with them...swapping bits of things that they had for what we had...

Patriot launched several more times at Dhahran, saving in my mind lots of people; most importantly me. I firmly, and genuinely believe that Patriot saved my life in Dhahran...but it also made a hole in my soul.