Sunday, June 20, 2010

Portraits of bravery: the helicopter pilot

It is not just Taliban forces that pose a threat to British soldiers in Afghanistan. The forces of nature can prove just as deadly.

By Paul Kendall, Daily Telegraph

Shortly after dusk one evening in April this year, Captain Mal Bradford, the pilot of a Royal Marine Sea King helicopter, was returning to Camp Bastion, Britain's largest military base in Afghanistan.

Captain Mal Bradford, 845 Squadron is attached to the Joint Helicopter Force Afghanistan

He and his crew – a co-pilot, a door gunner and an air crewman – had been on duty in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, carrying out a fairly routine task: to transport troops and equipment into the field and bring four men back to base.

Capt Bradford, a 30-year-old from Hatfield, Hertfordshire, was looking forward to a workout in the gym, a cup of tea with his crew and an early night.

Then, 10 miles from Bastion, the door gunner suddenly spotted something.

"Blimey guys," he yelled into his headset, "have you seen that massive dust cloud that's creeping up to Bastion on the left?"

The captain and the rest of the crew turned to their left and looked out of the helicopter. Moving at about 30mph was a vast dust cloud five or six miles wide and 4,000ft high. It looked like a solid mass.

Everything ahead of the cloud – the lights of Bastion, the jagged outline of the desert mountains – was clearly visible. Everything else had disappeared.

A Sea King safely back in Bastion undergoing routine servicing

"Where the dust cloud was, you couldn't see a thing," recalls Capt Bradford.

Sea King pilots are trained to fly "blind", using just their instruments to navigate, but, if he got caught in the cloud, Capt Bradford knew he wouldn't be able to land. It would simply be too dangerous. To make matters worse, they were low on fuel.

"We decided to race to Bastion and beat the cloud," he says. "We increased to our maximum speed – just over 100mph – and kept on tracking towards [the camp]. But with about one mile to go we lost all references. You couldn't see the lights on the runway, or the lights in people's tents or anything."

There was nothing else to do: he aborted the landing and turned the Sea King 90 degrees to the right.

"We'll have to go to FOB Price," he shouted.

Twenty-five miles to the east, Price, a Forward Operating Base, was the nearest safe place to land. But they weren't out of the woods yet.

Having enveloped Bastion, the dust cloud was moving at right angles to the helicopter and bearing down on them fast.

"All the way to Price, the dust cloud remained 200 metres behind us," says Capt Bradford. "We were racing against it."

The Sea King won, just. Thirty seconds after landing and shutting down the engines, Capt Bradford, his crew and passengers were hit by the cloud.

"You couldn't see the bloke standing three metres away from you. We took cover in a Portakabin.

"It all worked out OK in the end, but if we'd returned to Bastion slightly later or the dust cloud had been quicker or the door gunner had not spotted it in time, we would've flown into the cloud.

"We would have been,' says Capt Bradford, with the understatement typical of a British soldier, "in a very sticky situation."

Photo: Corporal Gary Kendall RLC

1 comment:

  1. Thank God for the Door Gunner - glad you were all safe....God Bless All x