Thursday, November 5, 2009

RAF Trains for Afghanistan At Top Gun Base - Sky

Greg Milam, US correspondent
RAF pilots are training for the harsh conditions they will face in Afghanistan - at the American base where the movie Top Gun was filmed.

The Merlin helicopters and crews will deploy to the war zone next month after completing training at the El Centro naval air facility in California.

The extreme heat in the mountain and desert terrain along the US border with Mexico is almost identical to conditions in Afghanistan.

With the Government under fire over the number of helicopters in Afghanistan, the Merlins will provide much needed assistance to ground forces.

El Centro, where Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis shot scenes for the 1986 classic, sits below sea level but is surrounded by 5000ft mountains.

It replicates the "hot and high" flying conditions the Merlin crews will face.

Helicopters are a lifeline for ground forces in the battle with al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents as roadside bomb attacks have increased.

Lieutenant-Cdr Neil 'Charlie' Parrock, who is in charge of the training in California, told Sky News: "There are obvious issues we hope just won't happen.

"Regarding the harshness of the environment, we know it is extremely stressful on the aircraft and on the individual, both physiological and psychological."

He says the training offered at El Centro is the ideal preparation for Afghanistan.

In particular, crews learn how to cope with 'dust landings', flying into blinding clouds of sand created by the helicopter's down-draft.

"It is like flying through sandpaper," said one pilot.

Crews also now have the latest night vision equipment.

Pilot Flight Lieutenant Jo Watkinson said: "This is a massive improvement on how it was a couple of years ago when people would go out to Iraq and have to get their environmental qualification in a much more threatening area."

Afghanistan has proved a dangerous battleground for helicopters with a series of fatal crashes. Last week 14 Americans were killed in two separate helicopter incidents.

Instructor Flight Lieutenant Max Bond said: "You can never say you are a 100% there because we haven't been in the country before so it is bound to present new challenges to ourselves."

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