Sunday, December 27, 2009
Nikki Thomas, a fast jet-navigator serving in Afghanistan, on fighting the Taliban and 'helmet hair'
By Janine Thomas for the Times
I’m on the phone to Nikki, my little sister, and we’re gossiping away about the usual stuff, boys, shoes, bombs. Yes, bombs. Squadron Leader Nikki Thomas is a fast-jet navigator serving in Afghanistan. She and her pilot, Juliette “Jules” Fleming, are the RAF’s first all-female Tornado crew in the country. They have clocked up more than 35 missions in the war zone in the past three months.
We hear much about the husbands, fathers, sons and brothers out there; but what of the mothers, wives, sisters and daughters? Of the 30 Tornado GR4 air crew of the RAF’s 31 Squadron on active duty in Afghanistan, four are women — Nikki and Jules among them.
What drove them into what seems the most macho of work? We’ve all seen Top Gun: what does it take to be Top Girl? And, for that matter, what is it like to be Top Girl’s sister? Whenever my mobile rings with an unknown number, I think it’s Nikki and leap on it. I know I can’t call her back and may not be able to speak to her for another week. A week with no contact, when your sister is fighting a war on the other side of the world, can seem an eternity.
Nikki chats away about her mates, the food, the little things. She never tells of the danger she puts herself in saving lives on the ground. She will say: “Oh, we had an interesting moment today but it was all good.”
Last week’s “interesting moment” made the news. I opened the paper to see a story about Nikki and Juliette chasing off a Taliban rocket team who were threatening Kandahar airbase. Usually her work is top secret, but I managed to wrench the details of this story from her.
“We were tasked to search for potential rocket teams and identified a group of men digging in a ditch quite close to base,” she told me. “Their actions looked suspicious and the idea that they might be setting up to fire on our base meant that we needed to do something fast.
“Jules took the aircraft out to about 15 miles from the ditch and we descended rapidly to fly over the men, at about 100ft and 500mph. An aircraft flying that fast and low is a pretty terrifying sight. The guys ran for their trucks and careered off. There were no rocket attacks that evening.”
Kandahar is home to 20,000 international troops. Although it is not the most austere base in theatre, it has been turned into a mud pit by recent rain. Taliban rocket attacks are a weekly occurrence. When the siren sounds, you have a few seconds to hit the ground — and fast.
For the full article click here for the Times Online