Monday, June 22, 2009

Armed Forces Day: bravery in the skies - Telegraph

Pilot flew repeatedly through enemy fire to rescue comrades, writes Andrew Alderson.

n the understated words of Flt Lt Craig Wilson, it was busiest day of his career. To his comrades, it was 10 hours of sustained heroics and raw courage that rightly earned him a gallantry award.

Flt Lt Wilson, 33, a Chinook helicopter pilot, had seen little action in the face of the enemy when he answered a call at 7pm to pick up an injured Afghan National Army soldier, who had been shot in the foot.

At the time, he was working as part of an Immediate Response Team that was tasked with flying doctors to the aid of soldiers injured in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, and getting them all out again.

That initial collection of the injured Afghan soldier was straightforward compared with what lay ahead that night: three further daring missions during which he repeatedly came under enemy fire.

“Shortly after we landed back at Camp Bastion, we were called out again to the Sangin valley, where there was a British casualty who had been seriously hurt after his vehicle was ambushed,” Flt Lt Wilson said. “A bullet had gone in under his right arm, leaving a hole, and then it had hit his spine and come out under his other arm – missing his body armour.”

By now it was about 10pm on June 11, 2006. “The area was 'hot’ [with enemy fire] and we had to hold off for a few minutes. Then the Apaches [attack helicopters] went in to suppress the area before we were able to land, amid a storm of dust, by a wadi [dry valley] close to a burning vehicle. We were under fire but we got the casualty back to Bastion.”

Just minutes after returning, they were sent to fetch yet another casualty: this time a British soldier who had lost his left arm in a firefight.

“When we got to the area, there was a really big contact [battle] going on,” he said. This time, the crew had to circle in the air for more than 90 minutes and by the time they landed they were desperately low on fuel. As they landed, they came under heavy fire.

“It was frustrating not being able to land because we knew our guy was in trouble and we wanted to go in and get him. We just had to sit there and wait – but eventually we got him,” said Flt Lt Wilson. All three casualties who were evacuated survived, but even then the night was not over.

The battle in the Sangin valley was so intense that, at 6am, Flt Lt Wilson’s crew, along with two other Chinook helicopters, had to fly in reinforcements, again under fire. “Lots of people have busy days, but that was my busiest day – definitely,” he said, modestly.

Flt Lt Wilson, who was brought up in Kent, had wanted to be a pilot since he was 10 years old. He joined the Air Cadets aged 13 and, after graduating with a degree in electrical and electronic engineering at Glasgow University in November 1998, he headed straight for the RAF.

After training at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire and RAF Shawbury in Shropshire, Flt Lt Wilson received his “wings”. He was sent to RAF Odiham in Hampshire, where he has been based ever since, flying Chinooks.

Twin-rotor Chinook helicopters – each worth nearly £30 million – are used to support ground troops and evacuate casualties. Each can carry up to 54 troops and usually flies at speeds of 125 knots (nearly 150mph). The helicopter is flown by a four-strong crew – two pilots and two crewmen – and is armed with three machine guns. When they go into dangerous areas, Chinooks are usually supported by Apache attack helicopters.

Flt Lt Wilson served in Europe, the Falkland Islands, Northern Ireland and Iraq, before tours in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007. Iraq was busy but it was only when he went to Afghanistan that it became “common” for his Chinook to come under fire. “We carried out a lot of operations which were 'hot’ [with enemy gunfire] and you could see muzzle flashes or even RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] as you came in to land,” he said.

“Fortunately, I have never had anything hit my aircraft but I have been aware of the thump, as mortars have landed near by. Normally you see things happening [enemy fire] rather than hear it. I prefer flying at night because it makes it harder for them [the enemy] to see us – though it does make flying a bit trickier.”

Flt Lt Wilson learnt in the autumn of 2006, when he was back in Britain, that he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his bravery. He considers the award was also on behalf of the rest of his crew – Flt Lt Alex Duncan (who has since also received the DFC for another incident), Flt Sgt Rob Chambers and Sgt Graham Jones – and also the ground crew. He received his award from the Queen at Buckingham Palace in May 2007.

Flt Lt Wilson, who has a five-month-old son, now works as an instructor, teaching pilots to fly Chinooks. He is grateful that the bravery of servicemen will be recognised with an Armed Forces Day. “I am proud of the job we do. As the memories of the world wars start to fade, it is important that we remind people exactly what the Armed Forces are doing. And it’s nice to know we have the public’s support.”

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